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2 L.A. men vie to be California's next Assembly speaker

John Perez, a cousin of L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, is backed by the incumbent, Karen Bass. But Kevin De Leon refuses to throw in the towel.

December 03, 2009|By Eric Bailey and Shane Goldmacher
  • Assemblyman Kevin De Leon (D-Los Angeles) has been campaigning for the speaker post since spring and long had been considered the front-runner.
Assemblyman Kevin De Leon (D-Los Angeles) has been campaigning for the… (Los Angeles Times )

Reporting from Sacramento — The state Assembly soon could have a new top leader, or at least an heir apparent, as a testy battle to replace Speaker Karen Bass comes to a head a year before her term ends.

A freshman Democrat from Los Angeles has edged ahead in the sweepstakes to succeed Bass (D-Los Angeles), who has presided over a year and a half of budgetary turmoil -- and she has thrown him her support.

Assemblyman John Perez, a cousin of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa who is heading into just his second season in Sacramento, could make history by becoming the first openly gay Assembly leader.

Perez declined to comment Wednesday, but Bass declared at an afternoon news conference that she was confident Perez had the support to be named her successor next week and take full control of the Assembly after an on-the-job transition early next year.

But his main rival for the job, Assemblyman Kevin De Leon (D-Los Angeles), refuses to throw in the towel.

De Leon declined to comment, but several of his supporters said Bass and Perez were declaring victory before the votes were counted in the 80-member house.

"It's not a done deal," said Assemblyman Edward Hernandez (D-West Covina), a De Leon backer. "There's been no . . . vote taken. It's going to be tough to get to 41."

Even some lawmakers still on the sidelines expressed concern about jumping the gun.

"Call me old-fashioned, but I believe in representative and participatory democracy," said Assemblywoman Mariko Yamada (D-Davis). "It sounds like the votes have been counted before they've been cast."

In the streets of Sacramento, however, Perez was acting like a man who had won the lottery. Leaving a union event at a hotel near the Capitol, he smiled, shook hands with and thanked passersby who congratulated him on winning the speakership.

He immediately won an endorsement from Art Pulaski, the California Labor Federation's executive secretary-treasurer, who called Bass' statement "welcome news to California families."

If Perez prevails, it would mark a come-from-behind victory over De Leon, who has been campaigning for the post since spring and had been considered the front-runner.

A Perez win also would be a victory for Bass, who has held the Assembly's top post for less than two years. Perez was willing to let her keep the top spot well into next year, whereas De Leon was pushing to become speaker immediately.

As De Leon appeared to be gaining ground over the last few weeks, applying intense pressure on colleagues to back his candidacy, Bass threw her support behind Perez. In recent days, she has been working aggressively to secure the spot for him.

Perez, a former union organizer who was elected to the Assembly in 2008, could become speaker little more than a year after he was sworn into office. Even with the Assembly's strict six-year term limit, Perez's ascent would mean he could hold the post for up to five years -- a political lifetime in modern Sacramento.

Assemblywoman Fiona Ma, a San Francisco Democrat who backed Perez, said his potential longevity was a "huge selling point" for his candidacy.

"Someone who is going to be here for the next five years is great for stability and for the institution," Ma said.

The freshman lawmaker would have a key seat at the negotiating table as California tackles a deficit now projected to be about $21 billion by the middle of next year. He would have to navigate the state Capitol's hyper-partisan waters, Democrats frustrated by budget cuts, and an electorate that holds the Legislature in record-low esteem.

Since term limits went into effect in 1990, only one speaker, Fabian Nuñez, has served more than a single term as Assembly speaker. Nuñez served for four years, until Bass replaced him in May 2008. The speaker's gavel has been in the grip of a Los Angeles Democrat for more than a decade, dating to then-Assemblyman Villaraigosa's selection in 1998. Perez would be the sixth straight speaker from Los Angeles.

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