Most people encounter it only in the context of school, but legislators get to be in that newly minted state after their first election. They join an institution with a long history and formal rules covering procedure and protocols.
There are unwritten rules, too, that can be learned only from the people—legislators and staff—who have a few years under their belt. First-year lawmakers face a steep learning curve while trying to hit the ground running, hire a staff, develop their own processes and prove to their constituents they can deliver for the district.
These are day-in-the-life stories of two rookies in the California State Assembly— different from their counterparts in many states because they are full time, have large personal staffs in their capital and district offices and nonpartisan fiscal, legal and IT staff at their disposal, too.
But their days have a familiar feel: weighing budgets and policy with their district and the state in mind, holding meeting after meeting with constituents asking for help and organizations asking for a yea or nay on bills. And fundraising as often as possible.
These two are freshmen in another sense: first-generation Americans, a daughter of migrant workers, a son of political refugees, both inspired from a young age to serve.
When California Assemblymember Esmeralda Soria arrives at her capital office at 9:30 this April morning, her hand is in a splint, and she had to miss her early morning boxing class.
Pounding a big punching bag no doubt caused the injury, she admits. She’ll have to find another way to shake off the stress of her freshman session in the Statehouse while it heals.
Soria has time to check in with staff before wall-to-wall meetings with constituent groups the rest of the day, capped by an evening fundraising dinner. She has also promised to stop by another dinner sometime after 8. Soria thrives on the demanding pace—she laughs and calls herself “a woman of action”—so she waves aside concerns about her hand as she looks over the day’s schedule.
Soria is new to the job of legislator but not to the Capitol or political life. In high school, she spent time in Sacramento through the Chicano Latino Youth Leadership Project. She worked for a state senator after college, and after law school she had a fellowship in the Obama White House. She won a seat on the Fresno City Council in 2014. In 2022, the final redistricting maps offered the Democrat an opportunity to win the Assembly’s 27th District seat.
“THE TYPE OF ISSUES THAT I GET TO WORK ON, OH MY GOD, IT’S NOT GOING TO IMPACT JUST THE LIVES OF ONE PERSON. IT’S IMPACTING LIVES OF THOUSANDS OF PEOPLE, NOT JUST IN MY COMMUNITY, BUT UP AND DOWN THE STATE OF CALIFORNIA.”
Soria grew up in the Central Valley’s farming community, the daughter of undocumented farmworkers from Mexico. They migrated mostly with the citrus and grape harvests when Soria and her four siblings were young. The family eventually settled in the Fresno area, where Soria’s mom, Maria Obeldina Soria, created stability for her children by buying a run-down house in Lindsay.
Soria grew up aware of efforts to gain better pay and living conditions for farmworkers, but she says her parents weren’t ones to go to protests or talk much about it. She became attuned to the idea of rights and participation when she was 10, watching the presidential debates of 1992—the first to be translated into Spanish—with her grandfather on Univision.
“And so that moment, me sitting with my grandpa, someone who didn’t speak English but had just become a citizen and was so intrigued and so excited that he could vote for president,” she says, “I connected the dots. I thought, ‘Oh my God, that’s important. I’m a citizen.’”
When Soria ran for a seat in the Assembly, she was excited about her list of priorities for the district, including public safety, housing and agriculture. That got blown out of the water on Dec. 23, when Madera Community Hospital and its clinics serving a rural area of the San Joaquin Valley went bankrupt and shut down. That left many people in a bind for health care and gave Soria a new legislative priority: getting a hospital back on line. It’s a goal front and center on this day of meetings. She jumps on every opportunity to turn the conversation to the abandoned hospital and the people who need care.
Soria meets with James Schwab, state director for U.S. Sen. Alex Padilla (D-Calif.). She launches into how the hospital situation is causing a cascading list of problems: The nearest ER is 30 miles away in Fresno, and people can’t get follow-up or specialty care because clinics attached to the hospital are closed. Not only did medical staff lose their jobs, but support staff like janitors and kitchen workers can’t find work elsewhere.
“This hospital (closure) definitely created an emergency health desert,” Soria says. It’s something people in her district talk about every time she visits, like at a recent meet-and-greet at a coffee shop that drew a crowd of 50 people. “To a coffee. Wow. Crazy. But this issue was the No. 1 issue,” she says.
Soria has a bill that would fund rural hospitals, many of which are on the brink financially.
“It’s like a safety net for struggling hospitals and rural communities,” she says. “It would create this emergency loan program for distressed hospitals and hospitals that have been closed but want to reopen. That’s the goal for Madera Hospital. We need to reopen it. This funding would help us.”
Soria has also proposed a bill that would study how to increase the pipeline of nurses for rural hospitals. And she’d like to find a buyer who, she says, could get the bankrupt hospital for “pennies for the dollar” to start afresh.
“You guys could be part of it, so tell Sen. Padilla to help us,” Soria says. Schwab assures her Padilla wants to help.
The other big issue hitting her district is the flooding caused by this season’s major winter storms. Fields of crops were submerged and many farmworkers lost their jobs. Soria saw it firsthand during a recent flyover, and she shares photos on her phone showing vast areas underwater.
Firebaugh, a town of 12,000 farmworkers in her district, has been hit especially hard. “Depending on how the snow melts, (that’s) how quickly that community can be completely underwater,” Soria says. “It’s so sad to hear their stories.” She describes being approached by a mother who told her, “‘We’re living off of Top Ramen (instant noodles), we don’t even have money to buy laundry detergent.’
“People are struggling and a lot of them are undocumented. There’s no relief,” she says, repeating her words for emphasis.
Schwab says Padilla’s office is working with FEMA to deliver aid. Soria says she and other members of the Assembly are talking with Gov. Gavin Newsom about unemployment payments to help undocumented workers, too.
Representatives of the state’s Commission on the Status of Women and Girls want to draw Soria’s attention to the plight of female veterans.
“Women in their 20s are killing themselves at 12 times the rate of the normal female population; women in their 30s and above are killing themselves at six times the rate,” says the commission’s vice chair, Erica Courtney, an Army veteran who has pushed the state to examine how the experiences of female veterans differ from those of male veterans.
And the rates she cites are much higher for women than for men. Women are also enduring rates of homelessness that are triple or quadruple that of male veterans.
The group hopes Soria, who chairs the Military and Veterans Affairs Committee, will support a bill to increase funding for services to female vets.
Soria is clearly sympathetic. She notes she worked to get the city of Fresno to recognize that homeless women needed different care than men.
“We weren’t creating the spaces for women and children so that their housing actually has a playground and a safe space,” Soria says. “And I was the only woman on the council. I had to push them really hard to establish a policy to prioritize women and children.”
She asks the group for more research about effective programs and urges them to keep her in the loop.
Leaders with credit unions arrive to talk about bills that are still evolving; since Soria is on the Banking and Finance Committee, they want to apprise her of their positions.
Staff grab an unexpected opening in her schedule to update Soria on the 14 bills that will come up the next day in the Insurance Committee. Joana Enriquez, Soria’s scheduler and executive assistant, sat in on a briefing this morning about the chair’s recommendations on each of the bills because Soria was in another meeting.
“So it’s all this information that staff has to download in a short period of time, make sense of it, and then share it with the assemblymember and be prepared to answer questions,” says Roy Sianez, Soria’s chief of staff.
Soria heads over to the weekly Democratic Caucus lunch meeting, where members will discuss bills and strategy, no outside observers allowed.
Mark Martin, the staff consultant for the Assembly’s Higher Education Committee, briefs Soria on budgets for campus expansions in the University of California system, especially rural campuses such as the one in Merced in her district. The state was flush last year and allotted money to many schools, from UCLA to Merced, which got $30 million. But Martin notes the governor is proposing a delay in spending because this year’s budget is expected to be much leaner.
There are many moving parts to the funding question, and Soria wants to know about plans for a medical school and whether anyone is looking at the now-vacant hospital in Madera. It’s not really in the scope of this conversation, but Soria can’t resist.
“We can get this hospital for pennies on the dollar because it’s in bankruptcy,” she says. “Seems like we should be looking at that.”
Soria also notes that UCLA has been allotted $200 million and rural universities get $30 million. She notes that even when one party has a supermajority, there are still divisions, such as rural versus urban. Los Angeles County has nearly three times as many assemblymembers as the Central Valley.
Representatives of the American Cancer Society tell Soria about bills they are tracking and leave behind a packet with details. Often, the bills people come to talk about won’t be priorities for Soria for a while, but she puts the “leave behind” materials the group gives her in a stack on her desk to go through when she has downtime, or, more likely, in the evenings.
Soria has back-to-back meetings with representatives and members of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. Their main concern is a proposal to create a regional energy system that could let the state obtain renewable and other energy from other states in a bid for efficiency. But the IBEW says it could drain up to 110,000 jobs from California; the union wants the state to do its own expansion of renewables.
Representatives of the California Hospital Association want assurance that Soria’s hospital bill will serve its intended purpose of targeting struggling rural hospitals without spreading the money too thin. As with every hospital discussion today, there are many factors to consider if Soria wants to see even an emergency room established in Madera again.
The Association of Builders and Contractors of California wants Soria to support broader authorization of its apprenticeship programs to qualify workers for state projects.
It’s the last constituent meeting of the day before she heads off to evening events. The day has seen deep dives into hospital financing, health insurance for low-income residents, flood relief for farmers and farmworkers, veteran suicide, cancer, financial education and a raft of bills related to insurance.
Soria says that when she got out of law school, it didn’t take long for her to realize elected office would be a better fit than practicing law.
“When you’re a lawyer, the type of law that I wanted to do, which was immigration law, you impacted one life at a time or one family at a time, right? And so for me, it was policy where I could see greater change or greater impact,” Soria says. “The type of issues that I get to work on, oh my God, it’s not going to impact just the lives of one person. It’s impacting the lives of thousands of people, not just in my community, but up and down the state of California.
“My mom and my grandmother grew up very Catholic and with a lot of faith,” she says. “And they would remind us, ‘To whom much is given, much is required.’
“That’s been a kind of motto.”
It’s a typical Monday morning in the Sacramento office of California Assemblymember Tri Ta.
Except for the doughnuts. And his wife.
It’s Ta’s birthday—he’s turning 50—and he’s set to offer his first resolution, addressing human rights in Vietnam, on the Assembly floor. So the day has a celebratory air.
Ta met his wife, Ahn Doan, at community college not long after he arrived in the U.S. from Vietnam. He was 19, and he and his family had come to California in 1992 as political refugees. Both his father and his father-in-law had been imprisoned for their opposition to communism.
“I CAME FROM COMMUNITY COLLEGE, SO I REALLY WANT TO DO SOMETHING FOR THE LOWINCOME FAMILIES AND FOR THE STUDENTS, BECAUSE THEY ARE THE FUTURE OF THE NATION.”
Ta could barely speak English when he arrived. But 10 years later, he was elected to the city council in Westminster, a community of 90,000 in northern Orange County, about 30 miles southeast of Los Angeles. Six years after that, he became the city’s first Vietnamese American mayor.
As a Republican in a chamber where Democrats have a supermajority, Ta says he’s a pragmatist.
“I want to achieve a lot of things; however, I understand the reality,” he says. “So I try to work across the aisle, to convince my colleagues from the other party that we should work together to help the community.”
He has introduced 20 bills to do things such as cap utility rates based on inflation, defer franchise taxes on new businesses and prohibit reduced sentences for criminals who commit a felony with a gun. He has co-authored legislation with Democrats ranging from water storage to personal income taxes. Eight bills had passed through committee as of this day, all with bipartisan support.
Ta holds his weekly check-in with staff. They all sign in through Zoom since several of them, including his chief of staff, Emmanuel Patrascu, work in his District 70 office in Westminster, more than 400 miles south of the capital.
The team makes sure everything is on track for a news conference the next day with the Republican Caucus to draw attention to fentanyl deaths in the state. They also share updates on the newsletter for constituents and talk about plans for a public safety meeting they hope will feature dogs from the California State Patrol canine unit.
Someone mentions a story in the Orange County Register about Ta’s bill to impose additional penalties on people who use artificial intelligence to create and distribute sexual content without someone’s permission, aka “revenge porn.” His proposal has gained support from Republicans and Democrats alike.
They agree to set up more business tours in the district—a chance for Ta to learn firsthand what people in the business community are doing and what needs and challenges they have.
Staffing an office is a big job for a newly elected representative. Ta worked with Patrascu in city government and tasked him with taking the lead in hiring seven additional staff. It’s a number that would seem massive in other states, but in California, each member of the Assembly represents nearly half a million residents.
Three members of the Jamul Indian Village tribe arrive to discuss their plans to expand their tribal lands. In 2005, the tribe built a casino on 6 acres of ancestral land about 20 miles from downtown San Diego. Now, it wants support to put additional land it bought into a trust so tribal members can build homes.
“When we opened our casino, we asked everyone to move off in order for our casino to come,” Michael Hunter, the tribe’s vice chairman, says.
Ken DeVore, Ta’s office director, joins the meeting. He has years of experience as a chief of staff, legislative director and lobbyist, so he knows the Capitol well. Veteran staffers make all the difference for first-year lawmakers. Ta taps that institutional knowledge to get up to speed quickly.
The tribal officers ask him to consider a letter of support for putting the lands in trust so they could eventually become expanded reservation land. Ta promises to look into the matter and come for a visit.
After the meeting, the group poses for a photograph in Ta’s office.
Ta says he always welcomes these visits from constituents. “My door is always open.”
Ta meets with a group that made a two-hour drive to the Capitol that morning to attend the vote on his Vietnam resolution.
Ta and his wife meet the visitors at the entrance to the state office building because it’s not easy to find offices here. These are temporary quarters for legislators and staff while the Capitol undergoes extensive renovations two blocks away.
The visitors represent several Vietnamese American groups in the Bay Area and San Jose, which has the largest Vietnamese American population outside of Ho Chi Minh City, formerly known as Saigon. They present him with a yellow orchid with a red center—the colors of the South Vietnamese flag and of the necktie Ta has chosen for this day.
After their meeting, Ta huddles with staff about the speaker’s plan for that day’s session. DeVore and legislative director Adam Boman share a list of expected activity.
Because they don’t get the agenda until the morning of each session, they quickly brief Ta on the array of upcoming issues and remind him where the Republican Caucus stands.
That doesn’t mean he’s in agreement every time. There’s one measure to research coastal erosion that the caucus opposes.
It doesn’t affect his landlocked district directly, but it meets Ta’s test of not harming his district, either. He’ll vote for it because he sees it as important to the state.
Ta takes the visitors from San Jose to the Capitol, where they meet in a room across from the visitors’ gallery for a few minutes before it’s time for Ta and his wife to head to the floor for the start of session.
Ta says one thing that has surprised him is how casually his colleagues treat the Assembly’s 1 p.m. start time.
“Not every member sits at the desk, they walk around and they talk to each other,” Ta says. He was taken aback; it seemed to him like no one was paying attention. Now he’s used to it.
Still, he says, “I go to the meeting early, because that is my behavior—and I can’t really change that.”
Today, Ta’s resolution is the first item of business, but not before Speaker Pro Tempore Christopher Ward wishes him a happy birthday. The Assembly applauds, and Ta introduces his wife. The speaker asks Ta to lead the Pledge of Allegiance, and then it’s time for his resolution.
Ta reads his statement, first in English, then in Vietnamese. It is his first floor speech and is apparently the first time a proposal has been entered into the record in his native language, and he’s proud of that alone.
The resolution proclaims May 11 as a day “in support of efforts to achieve freedom and human rights for the people of Vietnam.”
That date is the anniversary of the “Manifesto of the Non-Violent Movement for Human Rights in Vietnam,” created in 1990 by democracy activists in Vietnam. It calls for the government to respect basic human rights, accept a multiparty political system and allow free and fair national elections. The U.S. Congress first recognized this anniversary in 1994; today is the first time it has been considered in California, which is home to nearly 700,000 Vietnamese Americans.
“I am deeply grateful for the liberty and dignity that is given to everyone under our democratic ideals, but our heart breaks for the people still living under tyranny in Vietnam,” Ta says. “I know that my colleagues in the Assembly from both parties are committed to affirming the right of every person to be able to live in a free society where their lives matter and their votes matter in a multiparty system.”
The resolution passes unanimously on a voice vote. Ta introduces the delegation from San Jose and the Bay Area, then leaves the floor briefly to thank them for coming.
Ta joins today’s hearings of the Revenue and Taxation Committee. He serves on six committees, including as vice chairman of the Higher Education and the Aging and Long-Term Care committees.
Ta has a bill before the committee to give a two-day tax holiday in July for school supply shopping. He steps down from his seat at the committee dais to sit at the table before the committee to present the bill. As with all bills, the committee has been briefed in writing; no one has questions. The bill goes into the committee’s “suspense file”—a process in which analysts consider the bill’s fiscal impact—to await further action.
“I came from community college, so I really want to do something for the low-income families and for the students, because they are the future of the nation,” Ta says later.
To an onlooker, a committee hearing is a little hard to follow. All the testimony for or against a bill is submitted in writing, so there’s often no discussion or debate in the hearing room. People from both sides introduce themselves and simply say whether their organization is for or against; with few questions from the committee, 14 bills are processed.
Ta’s work in the Capitol is done for the day, so he walks back to his office. He has some time to reflect on being a first-year lawmaker.
He hasn’t had time for lunch, but he managed to wolf down a candy bar at one point and says that’s fairly typical.
The reason he ran for office? In a word, redistricting. It created a district largely aligned with the community he had already been serving.
“In December 2021, a few friends emailed me the new redistricting map,” Ta says. “So after I look at the map, I realize that this is a good opportunity for me, because I’ve been involved with the community and other surrounding areas. So, I ask my wife, I ask my family members, I ask my supporters—and they all agreed that I should run.”
Ta says there are plenty of issues in his district that could use statewide solutions, such as homelessness, housing affordability and public safety.
“Because I came from the local office, I understand how important many issues are at a city level, because we have to deal with that every day,” he says.
His previous roles as city councilor and mayor helped when it came to understanding the workings of a legislative body. But the pace and scope differ enormously, he says.
That’s why he’s grateful to have a seasoned staff keeping up on the 2,600 (and counting) bills before the Assembly this session, as well as managing the concerns of his district.
“I can say that everything is about staff. I think they’re amazing,” Ta says. “I couldn’t survive here without their support.”
Boman, Ta’s legislative director, says it requires teamwork.
“The assemblymember, he’s new to Sacramento,” Boman says. “Ken (DeVore, Ta’s office director) and I, we were not, but at the same time, we’ve never lived in Orange County. Or Vietnam for that matter. And so it’s a lot of me discovering what the district needs and wants.”
His staff briefs him one more time on tomorrow’s schedule.
Ta will have two committee hearings. His bill to revise job training programs through community colleges is coming up before the Higher Education Committee. DeVore tells him it is moving out of the committee by unanimous consent and will next go to the Labor and Employment Committee. They quickly scan the remaining 14 bills and share the perspective of the Republican Caucus. Ta will familiarize himself further with the bills before the hearing.
A typical evening for Ta might include a reception or a fundraiser and homework for the next day’s session and the rest of the week.
But this is his birthday, after all. His wife is here, and they have that added reason to celebrate: the passage of his first resolution on a cause that is near and dear to their hearts and to many in his district. So tonight, before he spends another hour or two preparing himself for another day at the Capitol, he’ll have a phone call with his daughters and enjoy a birthday dinner.
Kelley Griffin is a senior editor and host of NCSL’s “Across the Aisle” podcast.