Newly minted Assembly Speaker John A. PÃ©rez, second from left,… (Rich Pedroncelli / Associated…)
Reporting from Sacramento — There were rubber ducks on legislators' desks and a chorus belting out a Broadway show tune as John A. Pérez was sworn in as the new speaker of the California Assembly on Monday.
It was an untraditional ceremony for an unprecedented occasion: The Los Angeles Democrat and former labor leader, who was elected to the post during his first year as a lawmaker, is the first openly gay legislator to win a leadership role in the Legislature.
He replaces fellow Angeleno Karen Bass, also a Democrat, who is being forced out of the Assembly this year by term limits.
Those who spoke at the event noted the grim economic circumstances of the state, which Pérez and his fellow leaders continue to grapple with, but they also celebrated the historic first.
"He's someone who sends a signal to the nation that being gay is no longer a barrier to greatness," said Assemblywoman Fiona Ma (D-San Francisco), who introduced Pérez before he took the leadership oath.
In a speech to a packed house, Pérez highlighted his humble roots as the son of a Mexican immigrant, and laid out priorities that included passing a ballot measure to restore simple majority rule on budget-related bills -- they require a two-thirds vote now -- and preventing lobbyists from texting legislators during floor debates.
Although most of Pérez's suggestions met with polite applause, the texting ban raised eyebrows among staffers and lobbyists crowded at the back of the red-carpeted Assembly chamber.
The people of California "deserve to know who is involved in the debate," Pérez said. "They need not worry that special-interest lobbyists are secretly sending messages of opposition or support to us as we deliberate."
Pérez later told reporters he had never received a text message from a lobbyist while on the floor. E-mail messages, he said, will be permitted because members' e-mail addresses are public, whereas their cellphone numbers, required for text messages, are not. He did not say how the texting ban would be enforced.
Pérez, 40, a cousin of L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, came from the back bench to win the speakership in December, leaping over more seasoned members of his party. In one of his first acts as a leader, even before he took the post, he guided the Assembly vote against confirmation of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's pick to fill the vacant lieutenant governor job, state Sen. Abel Maldonado (R- Santa Maria). Schwarzenegger renominated Maldonado and another vote is expected in coming months. Pérez said Maldonado could be confirmed next time but declined to offer details.
Supporters praise Pérez for his intelligence and political instincts, but potential longevity could be his greatest strength. Having served only one year, he could remain speaker for almost five years, which would be a relatively long tenure in the era of term limits.
The overriding issue the new speaker faces is the state's crippling cash shortage. His predecessor has said she had never imagined being forced to spend her time as a legislative leader "tearing apart programs that I came into office to expand and protect."
Pérez faces the daunting task of trying to preserve what remains of those programs -- chiefly health and welfare services -- while reducing a roughly $20-billion budget deficit. Bass, who has announced a run for Congress, said last week that she was leaving California's social safety net "on life support."
Bass, a former community organizer, was the Assembly's first black woman speaker. She came to the job full of optimism in May 2008, saying her goals were to balance the budget, reform the state's tax system and expand programs to aid foster children.
She fell short of her goal of significant improvements for foster kids, and an overhaul of the state tax system remains in limbo.
Bass is seeking the seat of retiring Democratic Rep. Diane Watson, who has endorsed her for the Los Angeles-area district.
Those at Monday's swearing-in were treated to, among other songs, "A Brand New Day," a tune from the Broadway show "The Wiz," by the Gay Men's Chorus of Los Angeles. Each guest also received a yellow rubber duck emblazoned with the Assembly seal and the words "Speaker John A. Pérez."
Pérez collects rubber ducks. He has hundreds, said Shannon Murphy, spokeswoman for the Assembly's Democrats. Why? Murphy said the toys had something to do with an "inside joke."