This week, an earthquake changed California politics

At 3:04 p.m. on Tuesday, Laphonza Butler walked across the floor of the United States Senate, stood in front of Vice President Kamala Harris and took the oath to defend the Constitution, making official his emergence as a powerful new figure in California’s leadership. .

At the same time, on the other side of the Capitol, the fate of a longtime figure in the state’s power structure hung in the balance, as members debated Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s effort to keep his job.

McCarthy’s former antagonist, former Speaker Nancy Pelosi, missed the debate and the vote, which McCarthy lost. She was in San Francisco, “mourning the loss of her dear friend Dianne Feinstein,” her spokeswoman said. “She is very sad not to be present at this historic vote.”

California’s landscape evolves through earthquakes. Sometimes their politics do too.

The confluence of events over the past week — Feinstein’s death early Friday, Gov. Gavin Newsom’s surprise choice of Butler to replace her, and the far-right revolt against McCarthy — have combined to create a tremor that has reshaped both sides of the state’s political divide. .

“There have been more hectic weeks in the country… But politically? I don’t think so,” said former California Republican Party Chairman James Brulte, whose work in state politics dates back to the 1970s.

“A US senator died. “We have a governor who must make what has to be an almost historic appointment, and now McCarthy,” he said. “I just never remember anything like that.”

For years, California’s government seemed stagnant, with a group of aging leaders, almost all of them white, clinging to power over a young and increasingly diverse state. The logjam at the top began to break five years ago when Gov. Jerry Brown ended his fourth term as governor. This week, it erupted widely, completing a generational shift in a sudden, unforeseen avalanche.

A slip of the tongue highlighted how the events had caught the state’s public figures by surprise: Harris, formally introducing Butler to the Senate as the appointee for Feinstein’s “outstanding term,” instead said “unexpected.”

“Invincible and unexpected,” he added, recovering.

On the Democratic side, four people “dominated California politics for the last 50 years,” said former state Comptroller Steve Westly, pointing to former Assembly Speaker Willie Brown, Gov. Brown, Feinstein and Pelosi.

Of that group, “Nancy Pelosi is the only other major figure who is still active,” he said.

“That’s a big changing of the guard,” he added.

On the Republican side, McCarthy has been “the most important figure in California for two decades,” said Republican strategist Rob Stutzman.

“There is a generational shift” in state politics, said Sara Sadhwani, a politics professor at Pomona College. “I think Laphonza Butler reflects that kind of change,” she added, also pointing to the recently elected Latino and Asian Republicans. “It’s refreshing to have a new face in California politics.”

A few hours after the House voted, 216 to 210, to declare the speaker’s office vacant, with eight Republicans abandoning McCarthy, the veteran Bakersfield congressman announced he would not seek re-election to the speaker’s office. House Republican leaders plan to hold elections next week, although it remains unclear whether anyone will be able to unite the deeply divided Republican conference. McCarthy’s election in January came only after 15 rounds of voting.

Until someone else wins the majority, McCarthy ally Rep. Patrick T. McHenry of North Carolina will serve as speaker pro tempore.

For California’s embattled Republican minority, losing McCarthy as president would be devastating, Stutzman said.

“The party in California has been shrinking” for years, but “it would be much worse without the leadership he has exerted,” Stutzman said.

McCarthy, a prolific fundraiser and effective candidate recruiter, has kept Republicans competitive in a half-dozen swing seats in California, winning enough to give the party its majority in the House after the midterm elections in 2022.

He also protected the state’s less conservative Republicans from potential challenges, and at one point in 2022 he flew to Mar-a-Lago to ensure that former President Trump did not attack Rep. David Valadao of Hanford, who had voted the previous year in favor from Trump’s impeachment trial.

McCarthy “prevented the crazies from gaining even more control,” Stutzman said. “I don’t think people realize how much worse it could be.”

His fellow Californians stood out among the GOP members who unsuccessfully defended McCarthy in Tuesday’s debate.

“If this motion passes, the House will be paralyzed,” said Rep. Tom McClintock of Elk Grove. “Democrats will revel in Republican dysfunction and the public will rightly be repulsed.”

For the state as a whole, the loss of both Feinstein and McCarthy would mean a huge and sudden reduction in the political influence that comes with long tenure.

Democrats downplayed that impact. They rallied against McCarthy in Tuesday’s vote, calling him untrustworthy and unprincipled.

When asked about the potential loss of influence, Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Fremont) responded, “I’m not aware of the benefits California has gained from McCarthy’s presidency.”

If Democrats retake control of the House in 2024, the state would regain a spot in the House’s top leadership, with Rep. Pete Aguilar of Redlands now the third-ranking Democrat in the House.

Unlike McCarthy, Feinstein was less partisan. California political figures from both parties said she would be difficult to replace.

“She was a negotiator” in a state where deals are often difficult to negotiate, Stutzman said. Even as age weakened her in recent years, Feinstein was able to use her seniority to divert billions in federal funds to California for projects across the state, including desert preservation in the Mojave and the Metro Purple Line to the West Side. .

Butler, in an interview with The Times the day before his swearing-in, said he had “adored” his predecessor.

But even as he did so, he tacitly acknowledged the generational change that many in his party had long advocated.

“We have a country where many people throughout the state of California feel like they are not being heard,” he said. “I want to take this opportunity to stand before the people of California to hear their concerns and act in a manner consistent with their values.”

Lauter reported from Washington and Oreskes from Los Angeles. Times staff writer Erin B. Logan and special correspondent Cameron Joseph in Washington and writers Seema Mehta in Denver, Taryn Luna in Sacramento and Faith Pinho in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

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