SACRAMENTO — Fabian Nunez couldn't have risen to power in the Capitol much more quickly than he did. Now, after only two years in the Legislature, he is the Democratic counterweight to Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
A 37-year-old union organizer from Los Angeles who jumped ahead of a pack of candidates to lock up the Assembly speakership as a freshman, Nunez has proved himself and matured in important ways, observers say.
He succeeded at a speaker's primary job by hanging on to every Democratic seat in November's election, despite Schwarzenegger's campaign to elect more Republicans. His fundraising gave Democrats the edge in buying advertising for candidates.
And out from the shadow of longtime Senate leader John Burton, whose term in the Legislature expired, he is more securely positioned than new Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata (D-Oakland), who was barely elected by fellow senators and is enduring a federal investigation of his family and business associates.
Nunez gets good reviews from colleagues, both Democrats and Republicans, who call him well grounded, politically astute, energetic and smart.
"I had more experience than Fabian at his age, and I don't think I could have done what he did," Burton said. "What he did in the elections was incredible.... That clearly strengthens the guy in his own caucus. It would add to my confidence if I were his age."
For all these reasons, Nunez has a chance to "step it up" and define a Democratic agenda, a role that for decades has been dominated by the Senate, said Bruce Cain, director of UC Berkeley's Institute of Governmental Studies.
"He's got a smoothness which is quite impressive for somebody so young," Cain said.
Nunez maintains a liberal voting record but prefers to call himself a "core" Democrat. His political philosophy, he said, comes from his childhood as one of a dozen children of a gardener and a maid.
"It all comes from how I was raised and how broke I was growing up," he said. "It's always my point of departure with everything I do. With every decision I make, I always think back: How does this affect the people that grew up I like I did?"
The Democratic agenda in the coming year, Nunez said, will focus on getting healthcare coverage for 6 million uninsured people, creating jobs, protecting higher education from budget cuts and cleaning the state's air and water.
Nunez doesn't list gay marriage and driver's licenses for illegal immigrants as priorities. But they are for others in his caucus. One of his toughest jobs will be reconciling liberal Democrats with a more moderate faction that fears alienating voters with a left-leaning social agenda.
This month Assemblyman Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) introduced a bill to legalize gay marriage, with Nunez as coauthor.
"I personally believe it's a civil rights issue," Nunez said. "The civil rights movement wasn't always popular, but the Democratic Party was always at the forefront of that, and I think we have to keep with that tradition."
Gay marriage and driver's license bills probably will attract more media attention than transportation or education legislation, Nunez said, leaving a public impression that Democratic lawmakers are primarily pushing a social agenda.
"Do you shy away from allowing gay and lesbian couples their full civil rights because we're going to lose a P.R. battle?" he asked. "That's a question we have to ask ourselves. I can't speak for the entire caucus."
The issue will be hashed out at a Democratic caucus retreat in early January, Nunez said.
One of the more moderate Democrats, Assemblyman Joe Canciamilla (D-Pittsburg), said that under Nunez, he has argued unsuccessfully against taking on a liberal agenda.
"We work in a place that does not value independence and does not value independent thought," said Canciamilla, who lost a committee chairmanship under Nunez and was not named to either a caucus leadership post or a new committee chairmanship. "For a caucus that values diversity, we don't generally value diversity in thought and deed."
However the Democratic agenda is defined, advancing it will require Nunez to work with Schwarzenegger. Their professional relationship would be difficult even if the men enjoyed rapport, which they do not.
As former political director of the 800,000-member Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, Nunez is steeped in the "special interests" that Schwarzenegger decries as a corruptive influence in Sacramento.
The governor frequently criticizes the Legislature as being out of touch with the public and has threatened to use ballot measures to circumvent it on issues including workers' compensation reform and spending limits. Last summer, as Schwarzenegger pushed to pass his budget plan, the governor referred to Democratic lawmakers as "girlie men" who represent "the unions, the trial lawyers."