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Fight Already Brewing Over Choice of Assembly Speaker

Democrats: Topping some long lists are Sheila Kuehl and Cruz Bustamante. 'All hell is going to break out,' one strategist predicts.


SACRAMENTO — Even before Democrats finished celebrating their victories, a fight was brewing Wednesday among lawmakers over who would become the next speaker of the California Assembly.

The one ingredient they didn't lack was a shortage of candidates.

Topping some lists, at least in round one of the sparring, were Assembly members Sheila Kuehl of Santa Monica and Cruz Bustamante of Fresno.

"All hell is going to break out," predicted one Democratic strategist after his party emerged from Tuesday's balloting with a new majority of at least 41 seats in the 80-member lower house.

Just two years ago, Democratic Speaker Willie Brown, who held the job a record 14 1/2 years, was plotting ways to stay in office in the wake of a Republican landslide. Brown eventually relinquished power, prompting many to believe that it would be years before another Democrat would wield the speaker's gavel.

Seeking a return to power, contentious Democrats put aside their differences to map a winning election strategy to topple Speaker Curt Pringle (R-Garden Grove), who assumed the job earlier this year.

Now, Democrats are poised to take back the gavel.

But who will get the prize and with it the ability to orchestrate the lower house's agenda and appoint committee chairs, staff and members of prestigious boards like the Coastal Commission?

At least in the initial skirmishing, Bustamante, a former legislative aide who won a special election in 1993, is said to have pledges from as many as 22 Democratic colleagues, according to two Democratic legislative sources. Bustamante is considered a fierce partisan with strong backing from the Latino caucus and San Joaquin Valley farmers.

Bustamante could not be reached for comment.

With an equally strong fund-raising base in the silk stocking precincts of the Westside of Los Angeles, Kuehl, first elected in 1994, has made no secret of her desire to be speaker. She said "there are two or three of use who have indicated our willingness to serve."

She said she would meet with other potential candidates, including Bustamante and Antonio Villaraigosa of Los Angeles. Kuehl added that she and Bustamante already discussed holding Democrats together once a speaker is chosen.

"I see no scenario where Democrats are going to squander their majority," agreed Villaraigosa. "I see them coming together behind one leader."

Assemblyman Kevin Murray of Los Angeles, just reelected to a second term, said in a brief interview at the Capitol that he was undecided on whether to be a candidate for speaker. He said he has a "vision" for the caucus but noted that the vision does "not necessarily require me to be speaker."

"The greatest thing about the Democratic caucus now is its depth and breadth of talent," Murray said. "If anything, we have too much talent and it will be hard to decide who's the best person for the job."

Asked how the caucus would receive a freshman candidate such as Don Perata, a former Alameda County supervisor just elected to the Assembly, Murray paused but ultimately said the Democrats could accept it.

"Perata may be a freshman, but he's not a newcomer to politics," Murray said. Likewise, he said, Assemblywoman Carole Migden of San Francisco, a former county supervisor, or Assemblyman Richard Floyd of Wilmington, a veteran lawmaker reelected after a four-year interruption in service, also have the background to preside over the Assembly.

The Assembly speaker, which under Brown was the most powerful member of the Legislature, is elected by a majority in the lower house, 41 votes in the 80-member chamber. Members of the majority traditionally pick a speaker, but last year Democrats delivered votes for two successive Republican speakers.

Lame-duck Democratic Assembly Leader Richard Katz said there were "at least 41 potential speakers" among the Democrats and predicted that he would not play any role in the selection. "I'm trying to get out of town as fast as I can," said Katz, who will, nonetheless, preside over a caucus meeting today at a Sacramento hotel.

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