2023-24 Organizational Session
We are joined by many esteemed guests today.
Governor Gavin Newsom
Lieutenant Governor Eleni Kounalakis
Attorney General Rob Bonta
Secretary of State Shirley Weber
Controller-elect Malia Cohen
Superintendent of Public Instruction, Tony Thurmond
And Chief Justice-Elect, Patricia Guerrero.
We also welcome former members of the Legislature, other distinguished public officials, family, and special guests who have joined us today.
I want to start today the same way I began my speeches in 2020, 2018 and 2016 -- by thanking you.
Thank you for selecting me as Speaker. I also want to thank you for choosing to serve your state in the California Assembly.
This job can be exceptionally rewarding. My few remaining classmates elected with me in 2012 can tell you that.
It is also a sacrifice requiring long hours and time away from your families and your homes.
So, thank you.
I want to thank my family. When I was first sworn into the Assembly, my girlfriend Annie was with me.
Annie is no longer my girlfriend. In a week, we will celebrate our eighth wedding anniversary.
My sisters are here today and, of course, my dad is here as well. I’m very grateful for all of them.
There have been two big changes in our family since I first arrived in Sacramento. Our daughter Vienna was not here when I was first sworn in. She is now three years old.
Her arrival has meant so much to Annie and me.
The other big change is that my mom, who stood beside me when I was sworn in as Speaker in 2016, is no longer here.
My family and I miss her not only every day but also every single moment.
To my family, to my in-laws on both sides and to all eleven of my nieces and nephews, I say thank you and I’m sorry.
I’m sorry because over the past decade, I’ve missed a lot of birthdays, I’ve missed a lot of performances, I’ve missed a lot of games, I’ve just missed a lot of everything.
The important work here kept me away, but I know those family occasions were also very important. Again, I’m sorry.
Today is a good day to look back and to look forward.
My class got here in 2012. Saturday marked 10 years to the day that we, the first of the extended term limit classes, were sworn in for the first time.
Today’s new members who stay the 12 years allotted to them will leave in 2034.
That makes 22 years from when we started to when they will leave - almost a quarter of a century.
My class could not have anticipated a worldwide pandemic or an attempt to overturn a presidential election by invading the US Capitol.
The class of 2022 will also experience events that today are unimaginable to me, to you, and to anyone.
You may not know what is coming, but you have 12 years to make good things happen.
I remember sitting in the chair beside the one Mr. Maienschein occupies today and asking myself questions that a lot of you may ask yourselves today: “How the hell did I get here? And what should I do now?”
Those sound like very basic and fundamental questions, but it’s only the fundamental questions that have ever interested me.
I studied philosophy at the university level for fifteen years. That’s three years longer than I will have served in the assembly when I term out.
I fell in love with philosophy because of its fundamental nature.
Some say it can be reduced to only five fundamental questions. In life and in politics, there are always questions.
The Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke said, “Try to love the questions themselves.”
I grew to love the questions of philosophy, and then I sought to answer them.
For me, philosophy isn’t an esoteric or intellectual exercise. On the contrary, it is about how we live our lives on a daily basis.
Two of the fundamental questions of philosophy are: What is justice? And: What is right and wrong?
When I first became Speaker in 2016, I said from this rostrum that if you are not asking yourself what is justice and what is right and wrong every single day, you are not doing your job.
Ultimately, issues of justice and morality are all that should matter in these chambers.
Although I went out on the campaign trail, I have no interest in politics as sport and if you know me well, you know that about me.
I find the focus on odds and gamesmanship and mailers and the number of dollars that go into campaigns to be boring. It has nothing to do with why we chose to do this job. We want to have a positive impact on people’s lives.
Last month, I spoke at a campaign stop where I told people there to be careful not to over-identify with the outcome of that race.
The outcome of an election is the result of a game. It doesn’t speak to morality and justice.
It is natural for us to gain satisfaction from winning. Yes, you should have the drive to succeed in your elections.
We are all human, after all. Nevertheless, a concern for one’s career and personal satisfaction should not negate a concern for the greater good.
At the same time, a campaign victory, in itself, does not make you a better person and winning does not mean you will be a good legislator.
The best legislators I’ve seen over the past 10 years were those who made things most simple by focusing not on political maneuvering but on consistently and aggressively pursuing what was right and what was just.
I think of people like Mark Stone and Chad Mayes.
They stuck to their principles and they got stuff done.
There are too many people in politics who are only passionate about the game.
Once you abandon principle in favor of playing political games, you become less effective. When you do that, you are avoiding the question of ethics itself.
One common form of ethical avoidance around here is what I call “delayed morality.”
Delayed morality sounds something like this:
“I’m not going to do the right thing on this vote because it is too politically precarious. I have to get re-elected and do the right thing (pause) in the future.”
But that ethical avoidance becomes easier and easier to do until you find yourself ignoring considerations of right and wrong and justice all together. After a decade here I have seen occasions where that delayed morality leads to ignoring questions of ethics entirely.
And we need ethical leaders. In politics today, there is rampant nihilism, a lack of belief in anything at all.
To call yourself a progressive or a moderate or a conservative is not legitimate without locating those ideologies within a framework of right and wrong.
The philosopher Fredrich Nietzsche talked of the “will to power;” the idea that expanding power is a fundamental human drive. If you buy that, then maybe it makes sense to say politics is exclusively about power.
I don’t see it that way. Both in practice and in etymology, politics is about people. It comes from a word for citizen and our job has everything to do with our citizenry.
Politics is the collective problem-solving dimension of our society. Political philosophy asks what is justice. We answer the question. We do it right here, collectively.
But our focus on problem solving, even within the context of a democracy, should not cause us to fall in love with the idea of compromise.
There is a place for compromise here for sure. But compromise just because you want to get your name on a piece of legislation does not have justice at its core.
Compromise that assumes that anything that gets done is better than anything that does not get done, does not have justice at its core.
Compromise for the sake of compromise does not have justice at its core.
Our problem solving cannot compromise on ethics and justice.
Problem-solving in politics is like using a tool and it’s important to remember that there are a wide variety of tools.
A sledgehammer is a specific kind of tool. It’s designed not to build but to destroy. The tension between building and destroying has always been a central conflict in my life.
Philosophically and within the context of my daily life, I’ve always felt caught between an impulse for deconstruction, and an opposite impulse for building things.
At various points in my life, I was far more attracted to impulses that were about destroying.
Both punk rock and the deconstructionist philosophy of the Dadaists and Futurists I wrote about in graduate school carried an impulse to anarchism; an idea of destroying a corrupt system.
I wrote in my doctoral dissertation on the aesthetic theories that underlined post-modern architecture. In the final chapter I wrote this: “At some point during the 21st century, humanity will inevitably decide whether the task of achieving further advances in art and politics involves either maintaining or expanding the current commitment to the precepts of modernism or fundamentally abandoning them altogether.”
I thought that maybe we'd have to abandon this system entirely.
I realized that the challenge of post-modern architecture is this: Although you can tear down what came before, you still need a structure in which to live. You need places to work, to worship, to share culture, to gather as a community.
The political version of post-modernism has a similar challenge. We can tear down what came before, but people still have basic needs that can’t be satisfied on their own.
They need society. That’s why we are here. Society must use the tool of politics to benefit people; to take care of people; to empower people, to respond to what people need.
I’ve tried to do that for 10 years. Not alone, but in concert with others including those both inside and outside of this building.
Politics is not the only tool. We have to work with those outside, too.
I’m proud of the work we’ve done since 2012, but the truth is, our goals here are elusive. That is why I chose the quote that appears on today’s program.
It’s from Ludwig Wittgenstein, another Austrian, and it reads: “You are looking into a fog bank and hence persuade yourself that the goal is near. But the fog lifts, and the goal is not yet in sight.”
In this job every time you think you know how best to address a problem, you end up discovering that your answer is incomplete.
If done right, our job is similar to what we refer to as dialectical thinking in philosophy. That is an ongoing process by which you have to think about an issue from multiple perspectives before you arrive at the most logical conclusion.
Then you start over at the beginning by examining your conclusion from multiple perspectives. And then you do it again. And then again.
That’s why we have new bills each year. It is tedious work and that’s why you had better have things you believe in.
Here in Sacramento, people say, “Don’t fall in love with your bills.”
I agree with that. Don’t fall in love with bills.
But you sure as hell better be in love with your principles.
The drive for political leadership needs to come from an ethical first principle that has nothing to do with power.
If you are trying to become a leader to get power, you should not be a leader.
It’s also not enough to have an abstract idea of using power for good.
It has to be a passion for helping people in concrete ways that makes you want to enter the pit of despair that is modern politics.
I was asked recently about my legacy as Speaker.
I answered that I will have no legacy.
I used to walk down that hall on our left every day. I'd see the photos of 69 other speakers who have served this state and you know what? I have no idea who like 65 of those people were.
There’s no legacy, there’s only the work that you leave behind. The work you leave behind must help the citizens of this state in real and tangible ways.
There is nothing else and there can be nothing else. At the same time, that is so very much.
The path I’ve taken is the one I wanted to take when I first came here ten years ago. It is a path dictated by principles.
One of my principles was taking a sledgehammer to the concentration of power in one office and to put power in more hands, not to amass it in my hands.
It is a paradox, perhaps, to have a leader attempting to lead an effort to eliminate hierarchies, but that is why I first ran to be Speaker and that is why I was first elected as Speaker.
I hope that is also why you have elected me again as Speaker this time.
During our remaining two years here in the legislature I want to continue to do what we’ve done the past ten years which is to pursue justice, to reject what is bad and to embrace what is good.