Assembly Speaker John Pérez would like to stay in the Legislature but he’s got a problem: The law won’t let him. He’s termed out next year under voter-approved term limits and it’s time to move on.
Moving on means running for state controller in 2014, hoping to replace John Chiang who, in turn, is running for treasurer to replace the retiring Bill Lockyer.
Pérez heads into the controller’s race with a $1.5 million campaign war chest. He likely will face fellow Democrat Betty Yee, a former chief deputy in the Finance Department, the office that writes budgets for the governor. Yee currently serves on the state Board of Equalization.
Pérez, a former labor organizer and a cousin of former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, spent seven years handling political matters for the powerful 1.2 million-member United Food and Commercial Workers. He served as political director of the California Labor Federation. He’s also been on the boards of the Los Angeles Community Redevelopment Agency and the California League of Conservation Voters.
Pérez came to the Legislature in 2008, easily capturing L.A.’s 46th Assembly District and succeeding Fabian Núñez, a former Assembly speaker who also had been forced out by term limits. Pérez has been speaker since 2009, following Karen Bass.
Last year, Speaker Perez was included in a San Francisco Chronicle list of 20 Latino political rising stars.
Capitol Weekly talked to the speaker recently about politics and policy.
CW: What about the supermajorities? People saw the Senate results coming, but the Assembly’s two-thirds majority was a surprise to many.
JP: We were supposed to be playing defensive ball. So we were focusing on our defense but planning our offensive strategy. We put together a massive short-term campaign. At the end of election night, by two in the morning, we still only had 53 seats secured.
What nobody saw coming was that Steve Fox, running against a Republican candidate named Ron Smith, was a possibility.
It was on nobody’s radar screen but I always thought that numerically it was a doable place but we just never thought that we had the resources to go down there. We did a late program, very quietly, and it wasn’t clear until after the election that it was even possible we might pull it out. We brought all the leaders in and started to go through training for the upcoming session. So Ron Smith is there going through classes and a day before swearing in ceremonies, it’s clear there’s only a hair’s breadth between the two of them. So I called in Smith and said ‘look, here’s what we do, we swear in whoever is the leader and if the results change, then that person steps down.’ He was very good about it. I had the same conversation with Steve Fox.
At 2:45 PM on Sunday, the day before swearing in, Steve Fox won. So we got him on a plane, got him here at seven o’clock that night. We were doing a reception for new members and their spouses and Fox came in just at the tail end and missed the Governor who had just left. That night I had to personally physically rearrange office space. We were in here late at night taking center pages out of the brochure for swearing in so that at six in the morning we could get them to the printer. People grabbed them, thinking they had a memento because of the typo.
It was a huge victory. And the victory was in creating the possibility to win in places because we believed we had a chance to win in those places no one thought we did.
CW: A critical factor affecting your career is term limits. So what about them?
JP: Even before term limits were in place, the average member served eight years. The limitation is 12 (in any one house) so the new idea wasn’t about that average. So we haven’t done much to limit the tenure of the average member but what we have done is limit the ability of the brightest and the best to stay longer…
If Phil Isenberg, an absolute expert on water policy in California, had been limited in years he never would have built that expertise. In a state as large as California I think it’s unfortunate that you limit the ability of the absolute standouts to serve longer…
And from a constitutional balance of power perspective by limiting the legislature through term limits, you shift power to the executive branch because there are greater infrastructures there than exist in the legislative branch. So that shift is of concern.”
CW: You’ve been in organized labor for much of your professional life. How has it affected your political career?
JP: I had great support from California retailers when I went into politics because we had worked together even when differences existed. Most people misunderstand the labor movement. Unions want companies to succeed because successful companies, in turn, support their existence. The notion that we’re in this together is what has gotten us through the recession.
When I was sworn in as Speaker, I talked about my humble beginnings. My parents didn’t have a lot of material things to offer us but we never felt we wanted for anything. We definitely never wanted for love. So my parents focused on what was possible as opposed to that which was speculative…
In my first budget negotiation with Governor Schwarzenegger, he proposed a budget that would have had the effect of moving 430,000 people from the ranks of the employed to the ranks of the unemployed. I thought that during a recession in a state which is disproportionately consumer driven, the last thing you want to do is move people into unemployment…
At the end of the day, we had protected 400,000 of those jobs. And so the experience I had with labor paid off. Instead of arguing over proposals that had no long term upside, it was incumbent on us to come up with a different construct. It’s not enough to say no. You have to offer a different way to get there…
CW: What about the recent demonstration of fast-food workers?
JP: Well I think that traditional union methods would never result in a resolution. Most of the individual stores are owned by franchise holders. They’re individual employers and you can’t create a nationwide effort to change their pay policies. So I think the first place it’s going is in creating a public consciousness about working conditions and the work experience of people in fast food. The average minimum wage worker is not a kid taking a job after school. They are folks trying to make a living by stringing together two or three jobs so I think the first and most impactful part is bringing public attention to the real economic issue.”
CW: And what about the future?
JP: This (politics) is not an easy job. When elected, I inherited the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression and we had to worry about balancing the budget. You can’t make the kinds of decisions that requires without worrying about the lives of the people affected. So that’s emotionally incredibly draining.
But this past year, with a balanced budget, we were able to make some reinvestments and there’s a sense of relief that we’re starting to turn the corner and creating revenue faster than any other state, creating jobs faster than any other state and our recovery is faster than 44 other states. We’re proud of what we’ve been able to achieve.
Eds Note: Jim Cameron, a Sacramento writer, is a regular contributor to Capitol Weekly.