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Assembly Chooses Wesson as Speaker

Legislature: Culver City Democrat is praised by colleagues in both parties and is elected unanimously.

January 11, 2002|MIGUEL BUSTILLO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO — Herb Wesson was unanimously elected by his colleagues Thursday as the next speaker of the California Assembly, and he vowed in a stirring speech to lead the lower house as a team effort, not a personal ego trip.

Wesson, a 50-year-old Democrat from Culver City, spent two decades as a political operative to two of Los Angeles' most powerful African American politicians. He will take over the reins next month from Assembly Speaker Bob Hertzberg (D-Sherman Oaks), who is being forced out of office this year by term limits.

Fellow lawmakers--Republicans and Democrats alike--praised Wesson in an emotional series of speeches before the vote, describing him as the rare politician who listens to others and attempts to truly understand them.

"He has a unique ability to connect with almost everyone," said Assemblyman Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento), the only other lawmaker to make a serious bid for the speakership.

Assemblyman Carl Washington (D-Paramount) recalled how Wesson gave him his start in politics, when he wandered into the Los Angeles City Hall office of Councilman Nate Holden as a naive teenager with a rumpled suit and his hair in Jeri curls.

Later, while working with Wesson for Los Angeles County Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, Washington told legislators, the two had to help broker gang truces. One time, they had to deal with a 300-pound young man who pounded his fists on the table and boomed, "I want to fight Mike Tyson!"

Washington said he wanted to walk out, but Wesson pulled him back in and got the youth some ring training--a sign, Washington said, of Wesson's patience.

Assemblyman Tony Strickland (R-Moorpark), a conservative who stands far apart politically from the liberal Wesson, told his colleagues that Wesson is probably his best friend in the lower house. When his mother had a stroke, Strickland said, it was Wesson who first asked him how she was doing, and his mother still asks about "Little Herbie."

But it was the oratory of Wesson himself that most moved the lawmakers, and the crowd of family members and political associates who lined the back of the chamber. Wesson repeatedly told his colleagues, "Members, the speakership is not about me, it's about we."

Without citing them by name, he then told the life stories of colleagues such as Assemblyman Marco Firebaugh (D-Los Angeles), who was born in Tijuana and pursued an education at UC Berkeley and UCLA so he could fight for disadvantaged immigrants; and Assemblywoman Rebecca Cohn (D-Saratoga), who was born poor in Texas to a family fraught with domestic abuse, only to break the cycle and become an advocate for battered women.

"For me, it's been a long road from the rough-and-tumble streets of Cleveland to this hallowed hall," Wesson said, citing his childhood in a blue-collar community, where he encountered discrimination because of the color of his skin.

That racism helped shape Wesson, who says fighting discrimination is his top priority as a politician. But as he once admitted on the floor of the Assembly, he has not been immune from prejudices of his own.

Several colleagues cited the speech Wesson gave in 1999 in support of a bill to protect gay and lesbian students from discrimination as a defining moment in his political career.

Wesson confided that even though he had faced ugly prejudice himself, as a young man he taunted two co-workers whom he and others presumed to be gay. When one of the men confronted Wesson and asked him what made the two of them different, Wesson realized his error. He said he has sought to fight all hatred ever since.

The gay rights bill went down to defeat, but a political star was born.

He will be sworn into office Feb. 6.

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