Los Angeles Democrat John Perez will become speaker of the Assembly on Monday. (Rich Pedroncelli / Associated…)
Reporting from Sacramento — Supporters of incoming Assembly Speaker John Pérez say his rapid climb from rank-and-file lawmaker to one of the most powerful offices in the state is due to his intellectual prowess and unwavering commitment to the working poor.
But Pérez, a Democrat who was chosen as speaker in December and will be sworn in Monday, has something that left-leaning former labor leaders and freshman lawmakers usually lack: a financial pipeline to billionaire developers and white-shoe investors who rank among the most politically active power brokers in the state.
Forged during his years as an executive with the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, those ties have helped fill his campaign coffers. They have also outraged consumer advocates. And two of his mentors from the union came under the microscope in recent political corruption investigations.
Many of Pérez's legislative efforts have been consistent with the image he has cultivated as a crusader for the marginalized and powerless. He said he's most proud of a bill that authorizes a study of foul drinking water streaming from taps in the small, poor city of Maywood in his district.
But he has also championed causes that seem directly at odds with his political persona.
In 2009, his first full year as a lawmaker, Pérez carved a lucrative exception into state law for billionaire developer Philip Anschutz. He also introduced a bill at the request of Enterprise Car Rental that would have helped boost the company's bottom line by stripping away a significant consumer protection.
Before his election to the Assembly, while a member of the Los Angeles redevelopment commission, Pérez voted to give millions in government subsidies to a giant real estate firm that contributed heavily to his union's political fund.
Pérez, 40, a cousin of L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa -- a former Assembly speaker himself -- responded philosophically when asked about his involvement with powerful patrons.
"Exposure to people with different points of view, I hope, helps you make better decisions," he said, adding that it's impossible to help union members if their employers don't do well. "I come out of private-sector labor. There is a notion that business has to thrive."
But in the state with the most expensive legislative races in the country, there is also the reality that lawmakers who want to become leaders have to accumulate rich backers, said Tony Quinn, co-editor of the California Target Book, a nonpartisan publication that tracks political contests.
"Legislators turn to somebody who has developed a knack for tapping all the corporate interests, the big money," Quinn said. "In the Assembly, it has become a prerequisite for the speaker to be in a position to protect legislators by building a huge war chest."
Pérez was a 25-year-old labor activist when he was hired in 1995 to direct the Western states council of the United Food and Commercial Workers union, which represents more than 200,000 Californians employed by grocery stores and in related industries. As he moved through the ranks, eventually becoming a political director and vice president, Pérez learned to press the UFCW's agenda with lawmakers and wield the considerable power of its campaign funds.
He worked closely with fellow union executive Sean Harrigan, who said he had been a Pérez mentor and who in 2000 was appointed to the board of the California Public Employees Retirement System, the world's largest pension fund.
Consumer groups and government watchdogs were shocked by what the union did next: raise more than $374,000 in political contributions from investment firms doing business with CalPERS.
"That's one step short of payola," said Doug Heller of the Santa Monica-based nonprofit group Consumer Watchdog.
Four firms targeted in an investigation into corruption in the New York state pension fund contributed to the union while Pérez was vice president. They include Markstone Capital Group, which agreed in December to pay $18 million in restitution after founder and former Chairman Elliott Broidy pleaded guilty to felony charges related to gifts and political donations to top decision-makers in New York.
In an interview, Pérez acknowledged that the union's solicitation of money from CalPERS investors while Harrigan worked in both places was awkward. But he distanced himself, saying Harrigan alone raised the money.
"In retrospect, yeah, I would have asked questions," Pérez said. "But I didn't know what business [the contributors] had with CalPERS then. I only know that now after what I've read."
The CalPERS investors donated to a union fund that contributes to ballot-measure campaigns, although not to candidates. Pérez benefited from the union's overall fundraising success, however. When he ran for the Assembly in 2008, the UFCW and its locals put $86,000 into his campaign.