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California and the West

L.A.'s Villaraigosa Poised to Be Speaker

Legislature: Eastside liberal is in only third year of office. S.F.'s Sen. John Burton likely to head upper house.


SACRAMENTO — Moving to add stability to the Legislature, Senate and Assembly Democrats are preparing to select their new leaders, with a fast-rising Eastside assemblyman poised to become the first speaker from Los Angeles in 20 years.

Antonio Villaraigosa, a former labor organizer in only his third year of office, appears to be on the verge of locking up enough votes from key Democrats to capture the Assembly speaker post. A vote could come as early as next week.

Meanwhile, Sen. John Burton, a flamboyant, old-line San Francisco liberal, seems to have sufficient votes in the upper house to become the next Senate leader.

The Senate's majority Democrats are expected to vote today on Burton's nomination. A floor vote is expected next week. Twenty-one votes are needed in the 40-seat house to elect a Senate leader.

The leadership shake-up comes less than a month after a federal appeals court upheld California's term limits law. That decision will force Senate President Pro Tem Bill Lockyer (D-Hayward) and Assembly Speaker Cruz Bustamante (D-Fresno) to relinquish their seats this year.

By day's end Thursday, several key Democrats said Villaraigosa had lined up a strong majority of the Assembly's 43 Democrats--he needs 41 votes in the 80-seat house to elected to the powerful post.

His supporters said more members probably will fall into line as a vote nears. That could come next week.

At least one Democrat, Assemblywoman Denise Ducheny (D-San Diego), continues to challenge Villaraigosa--one of the Assembly's most liberal members--for the top spot, said her spokesman Curtis Richards.

Among Villaraigosa's supporters were Assemblywomen Sheila Kuehl (D-Santa Monica) and Carole Migden (D-San Francisco), whose names had surfaced in the past as candidates for leader of the lower house.

"I think I am able to say that he will be our next speaker," Kuehl said. "It looks to me that Antonio has an insurmountable advantage."

Villaraigosa would not comment. But his spokesman, Rich Zeiger, said, "Antonio is working very hard to be speaker. He would be honored if his colleagues chose him to lead them."

A Villaraigosa speakership could have a significant impact on Los Angeles.

"It's particularly good for Los Angeles right now," said Assemblywoman Debra Bowen (D-Marina del Rey). "Los Angeles is still struggling to come back economically. . . . I'm very excited to have a speaker whose attention will be on these things."

In the upper house, Burton, who has been a fixture in San Francisco politics for more than 30 years--and regularly clashes with Gov. Pete Wilson, whom he sometimes calls "the little Marine"--said he believes he has the support of a majority of the Senate's 23 Democrats and that "it looks very good" that he will become leader.

Burton's main rival, Sen. Patrick Johnston (D-Stockton), had not conceded Thursday. A third contender, Sen. Richard G. Polanco (D-Los Angeles), acknowledged he had been unable to round up the votes needed to win the coveted job, and was supporting Burton.

Polanco said he expects to play a "major role" in policy development and election campaigns under Burton. "Put it this way," Polanco said, "I think this team is going to be the Republicans' worst nightmare."

Although term limits have diluted the power of the leadership posts, the new speaker and Senate leader would instantly become two of the most powerful officials in California.

The leaders of the two houses can decide the fate of legislation and exert significant influence over the state's $73.8-billion budget--plus deliver pork to their regions and ensure that their allies get the perks of office. Those range from choice committee assignments to the best Capitol offices.

Thanks to a federal judge's ruling in a lawsuit last week striking down campaign contribution limits, the leaders will regain one of their major sources of power--the ability to raise money for campaigns and spread it among other candidates.

The dapper Villaraigosa, 44, is among the Assembly's most passionate members, and among the most genial. Like Burton, he is close to several Republicans. Villaraigosa, who once dropped out of high school, was described by several lawmakers as the ideal choice to lead an increasingly diverse assembly.

In his three years as a lawmaker, Villaraigosa has won points with female legislators with a bill signed into law last year guaranteeing women the right to breast-feed in public. He also wrote legislation to strengthen state law barring discrimination of gays and lesbians, although that bill failed.

Perhaps his most significant measure was legislation last year that provides state-funded health care coverage to children of the low-income parents whose employers don't provide medical insurance.

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