This story appeared on Calmatters
With few strict rules on what California lawmakers must do, politics, policy priorities and personal preferences determine how much they follow the wishes of voters who put them into office.
Pop quiz: What does your state senator do?
And for extra credit: Which Assemblymember represents you?
You’d be forgiven for not knowing. Despite the hundreds of laws that legislators pass each year, many Californians aren’t always aware of what their representatives do, or how their decisions impact their lives.
That’s partly why Republican Assemblymember Josh Hoover hosted a fall “Meet Your Representatives” event in the relatively new Folsom Ranch neighborhood. Inside the sparkling clean cafeteria at Mangini Ranch Elementary School, about two dozen residents gathered to hear what city, county and state elected officials do for them.
Most of the audience questions were focused on local issues: What is the city doing to attract bigger businesses? Why aren’t dogs on leashes?
But one resident asked the state lawmakers about school safety: Were they planning to introduce any bills to deal with the problem of mass shootings?
Hoover took that question: “There was an effort this year to defund school resource officers, school police officers. That effort was stopped at the state level,” he said, with veiled criticism of Democrats. But he deferred specifics to the school board member in attendance.
The conversation highlighted the role state lawmakers play: partisan politicking, working with other levels of government and introducing bills on specific policies that impact the lives of Californians.
But the actual job description for state lawmakers is not that prescriptive. Instead, it’s modeled after what federal lawmakers do, in response to specific needs, or based on how legislators interpret the principles of representation.
Given the lack of strict requirements — and as we near the start of the next session in early January — how do we measure how well a lawmaker is performing?
For Dan Schnur, a politics professor at UC Berkeley, USC and Pepperdine University, being an effective legislator means fulfilling three essential responsibilities: “Representing the interests of their district through constituent services, representing their districts through the passage of legislation, and representing their district through oversight and implementation of that legislation.”
The oath of office each legislator takes is simple: To support and defend the U.S. and California constitution (“against all enemies, foreign and domestic”) and “faithfully discharge” their duties. They also swear that they aren’t part of any party or organization that advocates overthrowing the U.S. government or the state of California by force, violence or other unlawful means.
California’s Constitution also lays out some rules the Legislature must follow: When the session starts, how it’s organized, plus some prohibitions, such as accepting money for making speeches.
And since Proposition 25 was adopted in 2010, if legislators fail to pass a state budget by the June 15 constitutional deadline, they forfeit their pay and expense stipends for each day beyond the deadline.
Other than that, there are no strict guidelines dictating what individual state lawmakers must do.
Assemblymembers can introduce as many as 50 bills a year, and state senators as many as 40 — but they’re not required to. They can vote on bills by other lawmakers — or not. They can also choose to serve on committees to shape bills through the process.
So can a lawmaker pass zero bills per session? Can they abstain from all votes?
Technically, yes. But should they?
That’s where the democratic process kicks in. As Schnur notes, for lawmakers who aren’t in their final term, their re-election campaign begins the day after they take office. During and at the end of each year, lawmakers point to their accomplishments, such as bills passed and money secured for their district.
In a September survey by the Public Policy Institute of California, just 48% of 1,600 likely voters approved of the way the Legislature was handling its job. (In comparison, Gov. Gavin Newsom’s approval rating was 56%.)
But how do you measure how well a lawmaker is performing?
That might depend on whether you see their primary role as representing people who live in their district, the state as a whole, a specific issue, or their political party.
Most lawmakers campaign on platforms that speak to the needs of their district — because that’s who elects them.
Take Celeste Rodriguez, the mayor of San Fernando who is running for state Assembly in 2024. In launching her campaign, she wrote: “Our community needs resources and for Sacramento policies to meet families where they are. I am proud to step forward to serve as a voice for the Northeast Valley and am honored and humbled that so many Valley leaders and stakeholders are uniting behind my campaign.”
And if they want to get re-elected, they’re likely to continue trying to appeal to the voters who supported them. “But the best legislators are those who are able to look beyond the needs of their own districts at a broader statewide set of goals,” Schnur said.
They might also point to scorecards issued by many interest groups, such as the California Chamber of Commerce, and state chapters of Planned Parenthood and the Sierra Club, or to their relationships with local government groups or unions.
And while a lawmaker’s duty is to their constituents, they might also have to carry out the will of their political party — which, occasionally, is at odds.
In March, for example, Assemblymember Jasmeet Bains was stripped of a committee assignment by then-Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon after she voted out of step with the Democratic Party, which holds a supermajority in the Legislature, on a bill to penalize oil producers for “windfall profits.”
Bains represents Kern County, which is heavily dependent on the oil industry and is a key contested battleground for both parties. She was reinstated to the influential Business and Professions Committee in May.
“Unlike places like Los Angeles, Kern County does not have dozens of members in the Legislature to represent our interests,” she said in a statement at the time. “We need to make sure Kern is at the table to make our point of view heard.”
Another part of representing the district: After Newsom and legislative leaders cut a deal on the state budget in June, Bains quickly took credit for bringing money to the county, including $21 million to boost public safety and $11 million to address the fentanyl crisis.
For some Republican lawmakers, representing largely GOP districts in a majority Democratic state, being effective means staying true to the party platform, regardless of how their bills fare. For others, it means trying to balance getting bills passed, but possibly compromising on some principles.
At the Folsom event, GOP Sen. Roger Niello of Roseville shared some of the issues he’s focused on: business regulation, taxation, school choice and homelessness. He was one of five legislators who requested an audit of how the state has spent billions of dollars on homelessness — a bipartisan effort.
“We need to make friends with the Democrats,” Niello said. “That’s how we get things done.”
But Republicans’ disadvantages highlight an imperfect way of measuring a legislator’s effectiveness: How many bills they author, or get passed.
Veteran lobbyist Chris Micheli, who writes often about the legislative process, noted that Rendon didn’t introduce any bills for most of his seven years as Assembly speaker. Helping to shape and shepherd significant bills forward can be a more significant contribution.
“I sometimes rail against the bill-making factory of this place … because I’m not sure that every public policy problem needs a bill — and I think we have way too many bills, anyways,” Micheli said. “How well do they deal with their constituents? How responsive are they? … Are they seen and heard in their district so that their constituents know that they are, in fact, working on their behalf?
“There’s a lot that lawmakers can do to show their value and to provide service to their constituents beyond just authoring bills.”
Another misleading measure: Fundraising. It’s one of the few tangible measurements available, so something the Capitol tends to fixate on, said Schnur. “But that doesn’t necessarily translate into effectiveness.”
While California’s population has grown since it became a state in 1850, its representative government hasn’t kept pace.
The first Legislature had 16 state senators and 36 Assemblymembers to represent about 92,000 citizens. In 1879, when the state’s population had grown to 865,000, the number of lawmakers was increased to today’s number: 40 senators and 80 Assemblymembers.
That means each Assembly member now represents 495,000 people, and each senator close to 1 million. And that means California legislators have the most constituents of any state.
State senators in Texas, the second most populous state, represent nearly as many people, but its state House members serve an average of 194,555 residents. Also for comparison, California’s 52 U.S. House members each represent an average of 761,000 people.
California’s large state Senate districts make it “impossible to provide any representation in the traditional sense,” Schnur said. “But it’s hard to imagine voters ever deciding that the answer to their problems is more politicians.”
Case in point: Michael Warnken, a libertarian activist, has argued that the ratio means the executive branch gets more power. He was part of a group that sued to add more legislative seats, but that case was dismissed in 2009. And in 2011 and 2013, former gubernatorial candidate John Cox backed unsuccessful efforts to change state districts into smaller neighborhood districts.
But how many constituents a state lawmaker represents doesn’t tell the whole story of representation.
You can also look at how well the Legislature reflects the diversity of California. Historically, it has fallen far short, according to the Public Policy Institute for California. But the redistricting after the 2020 Census helped transform the Legislature into the most diverse it has ever been. It produced a record number of majority-Latino districts, one more majority-Asian American Assembly district and two new congressional districts with sizable Black populations, according to the institute. The new political lines also helped elect a record number of women to the Legislature, though not in parity to the population.
But while increased diversity has some impact on the legislative agenda, it’s only the first step.
Leadership roles within each chamber and on committees matter, too. That’s why, when Assembly Speaker Robert Rivas issued new committee assignments late last month, the lack of Black lawmakers in the chamber’s leadership drew some criticism — including from Assemblymember Isaac Bryan, who had served as majority leader for five months.
Why does it matter?
“It brings more perspectives and experiences to the delivery of services and the development of policies,” Jennifer Paluch, research associate with the Public Policy Institute of California, wrote in 2020. “It is also important to inspire future leaders and change-makers who see themselves in the faces of their representatives, so that diverse viewpoints and ideas continue to enrich public debate and produce better-informed policies.”
While lawmakers typically draw more focus for what they do inside the Capitol, they each also have a constituent services office — one of the more direct ways they represent their voters.
District office staff take calls on bills, problems in the community, or issues with state departments — helping people deal with delays in unemployment payments or finding the right agency to address their concern.
The district offices developed as the Legislature shifted to a full-time operation in 1967. Before that, lawmakers spent more time in their districts rather than in Sacramento, according to Alex Vassar, communications manager with the California State Library.
Today, district offices boast robust operations, including a software system that helps track the comments and requests they receive. Lori Brown, constituent services director for Sen. Brian Jones, a Republican from San Diego, prints out every email and makes sure she speaks by phone to every individual who contacts the office.
“We can’t help everybody, but we do tell them we’ll look into the matter, we’ll try to find an answer. We do a lot of referrals to other offices,” Brown said. “We have a whole process to make sure they’re handed off and not just saying, we’re just sending you off to another office.”
Brown also follows up with the agencies she refers people to to make sure the issue has been addressed.
In the last legislative session, according to the 23 senators’ offices that responded to a CalMatters survey:
Still, while constituent services are a form of representation, the number of cases is small compared to the number of people in each district.
The district offices also field “constituent correspondences” — comments on bills — and log them into their database.
“Before the Senator votes on a bill, he can see how many people have called him support and opposition,” said Nina Krishel, communications director for Jones’ office. “We can pull the comments that they’ve left, and we record all of that in our system —- and he really does take it into account.”
For Jonathan Mehta Stein, executive director of good government group California Common Cause, there’s no all-in-one-metric that can help determine if a legislator is representative of their constituents.
Instead, Mehta posed a set of questions: “Do they share experiences with most of, or a large number, of their constituents? Do they represent the views of a large number of constituents? Are they accountable to and responsive to those constituents?”
For Micheli, the answer lies in the U.S. Constitution.