California assembly elects its first openly gay speaker

Assembly Democrats this afternoon chose Assemblyman John A. Perez as their new speaker, making the first-term Democrat the first openly gay man to hold the post.

Members emerged from a closed-door caucus at the historic Stanford Mansion to announce that Democrats had chosen Perez, of Los Angeles, on an unanimous vote.

The move came after Assemblyman Kevin de Leon agreed to bow out. A public vote on the Assembly floor is expected later this afternoon.

It followed a morning of smaller private meetings in which Perez, de Leon and a core group of the latter's supporters discussed how to go forward after a bitter speakership fight.

Assemblyman Jose Solorio, a Santa Ana Democrat who supported de Leon, said Perez is "going out of his way now to reach out to everyone."

"I think today we all got a comfort level that John's going to work in a collaborative way with everybody," Solorio said. "And that's what we want, going forward, a united caucus."

Perez, cousin of Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, will replace current Speaker Karen Bass, who will be forced out of the Legislature by term limits next year.

Democratic colleagues praised Perez, who has served this year as caucus chairman, helping steer the 51-member group through often bitter disagreement as California's reeling economy forced billions of dollars in cuts to education and other public services.

"He's fair, he's inclusive, he's articulate, he's focused, he's a team player, and he's friends with everybody," said Assemblywoman Bonnie Lowenthal, D-Los Angeles.

Lowenthal said Perez's status as a first-year legislator was an asset because he can serve five years as Assembly leader before being termed out.

"I trust him," Assemblywoman Fiona Ma, D-San Francisco, said of Perez. "If he says that he's going to do something, I believe that he will."

Republicans said that they differ markedly in political ideology from either Perez or de Leon, both labor-backed Democrats, so the selection of one over the other makes no substantive difference in prospects for GOP legislation.

Assemblyman Anthony Adams, R-Hesperia, said Perez has demonstrated a "great deal of integrity and steady handedness" and that Republicans must find a way to work with whomever Democrats choose because they hold 51 of the 80 seats.

"Candidly, what choice do we have?" Adams said.

Perez, who is chairman of the Assembly Democratic Caucus and was regarded much of the year as a potential candidate for speaker, entered the fray as a late-comer after being pushed by colleagues.

The final days marked a political whirlwind that apparently pulled the rug from under de Leon, who was regarded as the clear frontrunner but never won commitments from a majority of the 51-member Democratic Caucus.

Behind the scenes, the race appeared over shortly before Thanksgiving, when Villaraigosa hosted a private meeting of Perez, de Leon and former Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez, de Leon's childhood buddy and lifelong friend, Capitol officials said.

The session ended over a bottle of wine, officials said, with de Leon expected to become speaker and Perez targeted to run with no major Democratic opposition for the Senate seat of Cedillo, who has long coveted a move to the Assembly once he is termed out next year.

Despite the apparent understanding, de Leon was not able to quickly muster the caucus majority necessary to secure the post.

Torrico said many Democratic colleagues simply felt that de Leon, chairman of the powerful Assembly Appropriations Committee, had not led committees focused on major policy issues and was not "up to the job" of speaker.

"Too many people believe that he didn't earn his stripes, that Fabian Nunez did all the heavy lifting for him," Torrico said.

Days after the late November meeting with Villaraigosa, Perez switched gears and opted to fight de Leon for the speaker's job after being lobbied heavily to run by Assembly Democrats Jared Huffman and Fiona Ma, among others.

With Bass' support, commitments quickly began swinging Perez's way.

Torrico said he felt a turning point came with commitments by Ma and Los Angeles Assemblyman Felipe Fuentes to Perez.

"Once they came on board with Mr. Perez, basically the three most operational people in the Assembly were on the same team," he said. "That was a force that could overcome a four-year head start that Kevin de Leon had over John Perez."

Last week, Bass held a press conference to throw her support behind Perez, declare that a majority of the Democratic Caucus supported him, and to announce that she would begin working with Perez to set a timetable for transition.

Neither Perez nor de Leon commented publicly about the turn of events, but privately, de Leon's camp continued to press the fight.

The same day that Bass told the media that Perez's victory was imminent, 10 members of the Assembly's 17-member Latino Caucus met at the Sheraton Hotel, after which seven declared their support for de Leon as speaker.

At the time, Assemblyman Pedro Nava, a Santa Barbara Democrat who supported de Leon, said the contest was far from over.

"I think that we have a large number of very independent-thinking people who are not going to be stampeded into making a decision," Nava said.

Since then, Perez and de Leon, along with others, have been ironing out differences in private talks, leading to today's conciliation.

Doug Herman, Perez's political consultant, said he does not expect tension to linger between the two finalists for the top job.

"John would never double-cross Kevin," Herman said. "I think they both want to be able to, and will be able to, work together."

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