State Senator Michael Rubio stunned political observers with his surprise resignation on Friday morning. A moderate Democrat, Rubio was leading efforts to change the state's landmark environmental law, the California Environmental Quality Act.
His decision to leave office in order to spend more time with his family, and to take a job as a lobbyist for Chevron has sent potential candidates scrambling for a rare open State Senate seat. On Friday afternoon we talked to Fresno State political science professor Thomas Holyoke about what Rubio's departure means for the current legislative session and for local voters.
Q: The news today caught a lot of people by surprise including veteran political observers and raised a lot of eyebrows as well with the new city take a job with Chevron especially considering even earlier this week the Senator was talking about his plans for CEQA reform. How does this look from the outside looking in?
A: Well this is opportunism. Apparently this job came along and who knows when Chevron started talking to Senator Rubio about this, but the rest of us are certainly caught by surprise, and he’s basically out the door and I’m sure his constituents and everyone else, their heads are spinning trying to figure out what’s going on here.
This is what we loosely call “the revolving door” where you move from government into basically doing government affairs work for a company or an interest group. And he’ll abruptly be in the position where he will now be lobbying his former colleagues.
Q: What do you feel Rubio’s resignation means for efforts to reform the California Environmental Quality Act? Rubio was planning on introducing legislation this week on that very issue.
This is a big blow to CEQA reform because he was taking the lead on that, and as a Democrat and a member of the majority party, and head of the committee that would look over CEQA anyway, he had a lot of cache on this. I just cannot help but imagine that his departure is a big blow to CEQA reform.
Q: Is the climate for the reform of CEQA still there? Is there the political will in Sacramento to take on this issue at this point?
A: That’s a very good question. A lot of the state’s environmental groups and frankly, many of the state’s labor unions have been organizing against CEQA reform, which means if it was something we were really going to do, the Democrats would have to push back against some of their natural constituencies, which presumably means that a lot of Democrats would not have gone along. Passing CEQA reform would mean probably getting a minority of Democrats on board with probably all of the Republicans.
It would be actually kind of a strange thing for Sacramento to do this, I imagine that’s how it would have had to have happened, a minority of the majority party plus all of the minority party to do it. And Rubio I feel is somebody who could have persuaded other Dems, at least some other Democrats to have gotten on board. As more of centrist legislator he has, not only does he have ties to the Democrats, he also has ties to the Republican party somewhat, at least certainly more so than most Democrats up in Sacramento. He was in a good position to have brokered some kind of a deal on CEQA, now with him gone I have to imagine that the chances of anything happening with CEQA are just diminished significantly.
Q: With Rubio’s resignation and existing vacancies in other Senate seats the two-thirds majority that Democrats have enjoyed in Sacramento in the Senate is now at least temporarily gone. What does that mean in real terms for Sacramento politics.
A: It all of a sudden means that at least for the time being, Republicans are again a little more powerful in Sacramento. Because until special elections fill these seats, and assuming those those seats, at least on Democrat gets in, nothing tax-wise can be passed in Sacramento without Republican support.
Q: Of course a newly open Senate seat means a special election is coming and all sorts of political jockeying that always follows that sort of announcement. We’re already starting to see people talk about names of potential candidates for this open seat. Here in Fresno County, which portions of which are in Rubio’s district, Henry Perea Sr. put a Facebook message out saying that he thinks his son, Assemblymember Henry T. Perea might be a good candidate for this office. How do you see the politics of this surprise announcement playing out and who do you think are some of the names we might see on the election ballot in a few months.
A: This is a big and very unexpected opportunity. I mean, anybody in the valley with political ambitions is all of a sudden running around trying to figure out what support they’ve got, are they an eligible candidate, can they raise money. And special elections often benefit people who have some name recognition, who already have an organization, because there’s not a lot of time to build that stuff. And that’s why someone like you know, Fran Florez, Nicole Parra, who’ve already been in elected office, and of course, Henry T. Perea, who already have name recognition, who already have organizations, and in Henry T. Perea’s case is already a sitting legislator. They would have an advantage in a special election like this. Whereas somebody new to politics just does not have the time to put an organization together and get the name recognition.