The backstory on a California lawmaker’s ‘speaker for LA’ misquote — and damage-control campaign

A quote in a trade association’s newsletter set off a frantic cleanup effort by Assemblymember Isaac Bryan.

LOS ANGELES — The consensus among Capitol insiders immediately after Assembly Speaker Robert Rivas dumped his second-in-command could be summed up in three words: “speaker for LA.”

That was how then-Majority Leader Isaac Bryan purportedly referred to himself during a virtual meet-and-greet, according to a newsletter the Los Angeles County Business Federation, or BizFed, sent to its members last month. The phrase distilled the sense among some in Sacramento that the 31-year-old Los Angeles Democrat had big ambitions — and a grandiose view of himself.

But there was a catch about that particular quote: Bryan never actually said it.

His actual wording, according to a recording of the meeting, was that he would be “Los Angeles’ voice” — emphasizing how he would champion the city’s interests to a speaker from rural central California.

“My brother Speaker Rivas is not from here,” Bryan said at the online meeting. “… Rob is really one of my best friends in this work. But he’s from Hollister. And so I am Los Angeles’ voice.”

The BizFed email set off far more behind-the-scenes drama than the average trade association newsletter, including a damage control effort from Bryan and his team that underscores how the episode reinforced broader perceptions that Bryan’s aspirations could put him on a collision course with Rivas, his onetime ally.

Bryan went into clean-up mode after the “speaker for LA” line got noticed widely, including by Rivas’ chief of staff, Liz Snow. He got the BizFed to tell Rivas’ team that he had been misquoted.

A BizFed spokesperson said the group “clarified the error with the impacted parties as soon as it came to our attention.” But by then, the phrase had circulated widely through the Capitol community, becoming a sort of shorthand among Bryan’s detractors for his hubris.

When Rivas announced Wednesday night he was replacing Bryan as Majority Leader and moving him to chair of Natural Resources Committee, the “speaker for LA” brouhaha was quick to come to many insiders’ minds.

The speaker’s team said the BizFed misquote was not the reason for his leadership team shake-up.

“No, it did not have anything to do with it,” said Rivas spokesperson Elizabeth Ashford. “Period.”

Lara Korte contributed to this story.

The California Assembly, the state legislature’s lower house, passed the Bill by a 55-3 majority on Monday (August 28). The Senate (the upper house) had passed it by a 34-1 majority in May.

Civil rights activist Thenmozhi Soundararajan, who is from the Dalit community, celebrated the Bill’s passage, calling it a “win for the ages”.

“The assembly vote is a win for the ages. After conducting over 700 advocacy meetings across the entire state of California, the people have spoken resoundingly for caste equity protections. As a Californian who has endured caste my whole life, I know the struggles and adversity caste-oppressed Californians have unjustly faced first-hand,” the Associated Press quoted her as saying.

Soundararajan is a founder of Equality Labs, an Ambedkarite organisation that was at the forefront of civil society groups supporting the Bill.

The Ambedkar Association of North America (AANA) said in a press release that the assembly’s vote “will be remembered for generations”.

“Caste discrimination, a deeply entrenched issue impacting countless lives, finds itself squarely addressed in SB 403. The Bill introduces comprehensive measures to counter discrimination across sectors such as education, employment, housing and public services,” it said.

Lawmaker Aisha Wahab, who introduced the Bill in the California Senate in February this year, thanked members of the Assembly for voting in favour of SB 403 in a press release, the Sacramento Bee reported.

But not everyone is happy about the Bill’s passage.

Various diaspora groups have opposed SB 403, arguing that it will single out and encourage bias against Hindus and people of Indian descent.

One such group, the Coalition of Hindus of North America, called the Bill “unjust” and said the day of its passage was a “black day” in California’s history.

“The passing of a bill which is NOT facially neutral and written to specifically target Hindu Americans is the latest in a long line of unjust Bills, (such as the Asian Exclusion Act), which were popular at the time of their passing and were used to target minorities of colour,” it said, and thanked California legislators who voted against the Bill or abstained from voting.

As SB 403 was amended by the California Assembly, it will head back to the Senate for a re-vote, the Sacramento Bee reported. It will then need assent from the state governor in order to become law.

If it does, California will be the first US state to outlaw caste discrimination.

In February this year, Seattle became the first jurisdiction outside of South Asia that made caste discrimination illegal. Some US universities have also drafted anti-caste discrimination policies.