Feuds, fights and follies: 6 states where legislative sessions are off to rocky starts

Pledges of goodwill often mask the political infighting that seemingly always lurks beneath the surface.
New York Gov. Kathy Hochul shows a signed legislative package to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and create green jobs during a press conference, Tuesday, July 5, 2022, at the Brooklyn Navy Yard in the Brooklyn borough of New York. (AP Photo/Yuki Iwamura)

The beginning of state legislative sessions are marked by pomp, circumstance and the universal pledge to work across the aisle or across government offices.

But those pledges of goodwill often mask the political infighting that seemingly always lurks beneath the surface.

Those fights have begun in several states already, where lawmakers are jostling with governors, leaders, and even each other for the power to advance their legislative priorities.

Here are the six biggest feuds roiling states so far this year:

New York: Former Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s (D) exit from office in a cloud of scandal two years ago was supposed to usher in a new era in Albany, where for years legislative Democrats had prickly relations with Cuomo’s team.

But not so fast: His replacement, Gov. Kathy Hochul (D), is battling Senate Democrats over her choice to become New York’s top judge. The Senate Judiciary Committee voted Wednesday to reject Hochul’s nomination of Justice Hector LaSalle, whom progressives view as too conservative because of past rulings in labor and abortion cases.

Hochul has threatened to bring legal action to force a vote in the full Senate, arguing that the state constitution requires such a vote on her nominees.

Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins (D) doesn’t agree. “It’s clear that this nominee was rejected and that’s it,” she told reporters Wednesday.

The dust-up is a troubling prelude to budget negotiations in which Hochul and Democrats in the legislature are likely to clash over tax hikes on the wealthy — Democrats have called for higher taxes on the rich, while Hochul doesn’t want to raise those taxes. 

“She must have burned so much political capital on this,” one plugged-in New York Democrat told Pluribus News.

Ohio: Here’s another state where the majority party has turned into a circular firing squad. Republicans upset over a vote to elect the new House speaker formed a new caucus aimed at pushing conservative legislation, potentially complicating a session in which the GOP had expanded its control.

The trouble started earlier this month, when state Rep. Jason Stephens (R) cut a deal with Democrats and about a third of the Republican conference to win the speakership. He bested state Rep. Derek Merrin (R), a more conservative rival who had won a majority among House Republicans. 

Last week, after a meeting that excluded the Republicans who backed Stephens, Merrin claimed he was the true leader of the Republican majority. His backers are demanding a say in committee chairmanships, committee assignments and debate on the House floor.

“It is a third caucus, but I just don’t want it to get confused as this one is the third caucus,” state Rep. Ron Ferguson (R), a Merrin backer, told the Cleveland Plain Dealer. “This one is the first caucus. This is a Republican majority.”

California: If you come at the king, you best not miss.

In an extraordinary power struggle that played out over more than six months, Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon (D) has sought to hold onto his position in the face of a challenge from Assemblyman Robert Rivas (D).

Rivas claimed last year he had the votes to oust Rendon, even before Rendon reached term limits in 2024. Rendon called Rivas’s bluff — and survived, in a marathon six-hour caucus meeting in late May, after Rivas failed to secure the votes to force him out. One assemblymember in the room told us it was the most tension he had ever felt in a caucus meeting.

Assembly Democrats met again after the midterm elections to formalize an uneasy and uncomfortable power-sharing agreement: Rendon will remain speaker through the end of June, after budget negotiations have largely wrapped up. Then Rivas will take over.

Will the intervening months smooth over the tension within the Democratic caucus?

“Time heals wounds,” Assemblyman Kevin McCarty (D) told CalMatters. 

Pennsylvania: Here’s a tale of bipartisan woe: Democrats mounted a surprisingly strong showing in the midterm elections to capture 102 of 203 seats in the Pennsylvania state House, giving them their first majority in more than a decade.

But three of those Democrats who won election in November did not take office. One had died before Election Day, and two others resigned to assume higher offices they had won.

Both Democratic leader Joanna McClinton and Republican leader Bryan Cutler spent November and December feuding over which party really had a majority — and, therefore, who had the right to call special elections to fill the three vacant seats, which are likely to restore the Democratic majority.

When the legislature came into session, though, a solution seemed at hand: Several Republicans joined Democrats in backing state Rep. Mark Rozzi (D), a moderate from the Pennsylvania exurbs, for speaker. 

End of story? Not so much. Just days later, state Rep. Jim Gregory (R) — the Republican who had nominated Rozzi as a compromise candidate in the first place — called on the new speaker to resign. Gregory, who had worked with Rozzi on child sexual abuse legislation, said Rozzi had reneged on a pledge to govern as an independent. 

The “bonds of trust between friends — as close as you and I have been — are now broken,” Gregory wrote to Rozzi. 

The legislative session has gotten bogged down even more as Republicans and Democrats disagree over elements of a proposed constitutional amendment to allow survivors of sexual abuse to file claims against their alleged abusers.

Hawaii: Tensions often flare when a new governor takes office and tries to foist an agenda on legislators who have their own ambitions. Such is the case in Hawaii, where Gov. Josh Green (D) took office last month.

Green, formerly the state’s lieutenant governor, made eliminating an excise tax on food, imposing new fees on tourists and legalizing marijuana top priorities in his campaign. 

But House Speaker Scott Saiki (D) and Senate President Ron Kouchi (D) aren’t hot on any of those three ideas. Senators also gave Green’s nominee to head the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands a rough time at his confirmation hearing last week, criticizing the nominee’s inability to explain how the department would spend $600 million in funding.

The turbulence of Green’s first weeks may just be a little old fashioned exercise in hazing the new guy. 

“The Sesame Street word of the day is ‘cooperation,’” Saiki joked Wednesday when the legislature convened. “The House will work with Gov. Green and his team in good faith and in a positive manner so that we can solve problems and bring results to Hawaii residents.” 

Green and Kouchi embraced in the Senate chamber.

Alaska: To end on a positive note, one of the longest-running battles for control of a legislative chamber ended Wednesday in remarkable harmony.

For two consecutive sessions, though Alaska voters have sent more Republicans to the state House than Democrats, Democrats have been the ones in charge. A schism among conservative and moderate Republicans led to coalition agreements between moderates, Democrats and independents.

This year, Alaska’s state House seemed headed for a similar deal, after neither Republicans nor the former majority caucus won enough seats to claim outright control. But Republicans were the ones to come out on top, after members of the Bush Caucus rural legislators who tend to band together — voted to elect state Rep. Cathy Tilton (R) speaker of the House.

Several other Democrats joined Tilton’s cause, wrapping up what could have been a protracted fight over control. How protracted? In 2021, it took the state House more than a month, and plenty of failed votes, to settle on a speaker.