John Perez prides himself on defying labels. His rise to the speakership followed a break with a cluster of political allies that helped him rise to power and who included his cousin, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. Perez is openly gay in a community that has traditionally embraced traditional values. And he is drawn to Jewish scholarship, both intellectually and spiritually, even though his own ethnic roots have nothing to do with Judaism.
Perhaps, it is the art on the wall of his office that paints the best portait of who John Perez is. There, you’ll find pop art portraits of Doloroes Del Rio and Rita Hayworth, alongside an impressionistic painting of the Breed Street Schul, Los Angeles’s oldest synagogue. There are also portraits of Los Angeles City Hall and in the corner, a vibrant rainbow flag flying in the shadow of the nation’s Capitol.
Perez seems to enjoy defying labels and expectations, and as he prepares to take over as Speaker of the California Assembly, Perez will have a chance to show his colleagues and California that he is not easily defined.
Born and raised in Highland Park and educated at UC Berkeley, Perez is a student of politics, and an obvious intellectual. And though he is a first-year lawmaker, Perez is steeped in the culture of the Capitol. He points out that his current office, adjacent to the Assembly chambers, is the old speaker’s office occupied by former Speaker Jess Unruh. Perez seems to care deeply about the history of the office he will soon hold, and the future of his state. Though he comes from a union background, he prides himself on being able to negotiate with business leaders.
Talking to Perez, it’s difficult not to like him. He has very little pretense – is not overhandled by staff or swept up in the pomp and circumstance that can overcome some lawmakers.
He is hyper-smart, intellectually curious and optimistic about what lies ahead.
Whether that translates into a successful speakership remains to be seen.
Capitol Weekly spoke to Perez last month, shortly after being selected by his caucus to succeed Karen Bass.
What are you expecting out of this budget generally, and how do you go about saving what you can?
The first move is the governor’s. He’s got to propose a budget. And I am hopeful that the governor proposes a budget that is fair in its approach to making cuts in a way that doesn’t disproportionally affect the people who are most vulnerable in this state, and is in the spirit of shared sacrifice. We are in a period of economic crisis, and we each need to play our role in getting us out of that crisis. So depending on what he proposes, that sets the table for the tone of the discussions moving forward. And I think all of it will be informed by the experience we have during the budgets this year, and knowing we had to make very difficult choices.
But it’s frustrating because we do have a minoritarian system of government.
Would you like to get rid of the two-thirds requirement?
Yes. I think we absolutely need to get away from the two-thirds requirement for budget passage, and we have to have a strong debate about the two-thirds requirement on taxes. On budgets it absolutely imparitive. On taxes its an important debate.
It’s the only way to create accountable government. If you’ve got 60 percent control of both houses, but you can’t govern based on that majority, people don’t know who to hold accountable for what.
From a crude political calculation, I think it would be good for Republicans. They could let us go govern, make the choices, run against us, talk about how horrible we are, and try to take a majority that way. But from a governance perspective, it’s crucial. People get hurt when budgets drag on. Real folks all over the state – real folks who need government services, and then a lot of small and medium sized businesses that provide services to the state and get hung out to dry.
The budget numbers are even more daunting this year — $20 billion plus.
I don’t think there is a magic bullet. That’s why I’m hoping that we in the Legislature and the governor say everything has to be back on the table, and we get a measured, balanced approach.
Is there any way to get a tax increase through this Legislature?
It will take an extraordinary effort by this governor, but I think he’s up to the challenge. He has the skills to do it, he has to figure out if he has the will to do it.
Other than the budget, what’s on your priority list?
I came up here to do job creation stuff, and last year was a really bad year for that. I have a bill that looks at restructuring the way we use enterprise zones. I think we under-utilize the half-a-billion dollars a year we have in enterprise zones, to leverage for new jobs that wouldn’t otherwise exist or maintain jobs that otherwise would leave.
How has term limits changed the balance of power in the Capitol?
You have more power in the hands of staff. You have more power in the hands of lobbyists, because that’s where the institutional memory is, those two places.
Do you support the current term limits proposal that may be on the ballot in 2010?
I don’t know the details of it, but I support expanding the amount of time people can serve. And if that means expanding that amount of time prospectively so it doesn’t benefit any of us who are currently serving, that’s fine too.
The 12 years in one house model helps. It metes out better than what we have, but it reinforces the question of why we have a bicameral system. When you look at the history of why we have a bicameral system, it was much like the federal model where it was a question of balancing power between large population centers and small population centers. Senators were representing one county each.
Now, if you ask the lobby corps, they like the bicameral system because it gives them two chances to kill (a bill).
Do you support any of the constitutional reform proposals currently being discussed?
The first thing you need is a pathway. I prefer a Constitutional revision commission to a Constitutional Convention. With a revision commission, you can focus the discussion on the structural issues that I think underlie a lot of our challenges. In a Constitutional Convention, I know there are some that think you can limit the discussion. I’m skeptical as to whether you can craft a Constitutional Convention and then limit what’s on the table. And I think it would be horrible in this kind of an economic crisis, in this kind of a structural crisis, to go into something like a convention and have time and attention and energy focused on hot-button issues instead of structural issues.
But there was a commission in the early 1990s…
…and people didn’t like the outcome and people didn’t put it forward. But I think there’s a lot of be learned from that. I think if you talk to Bill Hauck, he would argue there was value in that. Bill and I, over the years, have spent a lot of time talking about it. But who’d believe that this union guy would talk to Bill Hauck?
What was the occasion for that discussion?
Bill and I served on boards together. Bill and Allan Zaremberg and I all served on the Managed Health Care Improvement Task Force under Gov. Wilson, looking at how we should deal with regulating managed health care, because California was well ahead of the rest of the country in terms of enrollees in managed health care. Bill and I were on a commission on state, local reform that came up with some, I thought, good proposals about 10 years ago. And I think we were also on a commission on initiative r
eform about eight years ago. And, it’s not like we’re best friends or anything, but we talk. And I think we have an abiding respect for each other.
It seems like you do have a lot of these relationships that predate your time in the Assembly. Is this a prototype for a successful speakership?
I think it makes a difference, because in this contracted time period, you come with all your experience sets. So the fact that I do have a lot of those relationships shortens the learning curve on some things. And it gives you a different sense of reaching out to people to fill ideas out, because you know what the relationships are.
Should Abel Maldonado be confirmed as lieutenant governor?
He hasn’t come over to talk to me yet, so we haven’t had a conversation. The Senate has a better infrastructure for doing confirmations than we do because they do gubernatorial confirmations all the time through the Rules Committee. The only time we do confirmations is when it’s Constitutional offices. The first question for us is what our process is for evaluating him because he deserves a fair hearing. So then the question becomes, what are the metrics by which you evaluate him? What are the policy issues by which you evaluates him?
Obviously the most significant one in a lot of people’s mind is his role on the state lands commission.
And he voted against (oil drilling) in the Senate…
Right, but that’s a legitimate issue that’s going to be before that office, and it’s important to figure out what he will evaluate in making those decisions.
We’ve got to know, where does the Yiddish come from?
I’m probably the only member of the Legislature that was worn in on a Tennach (a book that includes the Torah and Jewish Rabbinical scholarship).
You’re not Jewish, are you?
I’m not Jewish. It is both an intellectual and a spiritual interest. I like rules. I like systems. So that’s an obvious part of it….How much do you know about Judaism?
A little bit.
So, how many mitzvoth (Jewish laws) are there?
Very good. So, a Jew is judged by their adherence to 613 mitzvot. A non-Jew? How many?
Seven. The seven mitzvahs that were demonstrated by Noah. SO, you have that which is commanded. You have that which has been interpreted by the Talmudic scholars. And you have that which is the product of tradition.
So, in Judaism you find guiding principles for non-Jews…
But also, it’s interesting to look at the layering to rules, interpretations of rules, applications of rules. It’s almost the difference between Constitutional Law, law that is legislated, and common law. That’s kind of fascinating to me. So, it’s kind of an intellectual curiosity that I kind of play with.
The other is the first monotheistic religion, looking at other traditions in other monotheistic religions that are off-shoots from Judaism becomes interesting. And then language is just an interesting construct…
Is there a genesis to that curiosity?
Some of it is history. (Points to a painting on his wall) That’s the oldest synagogue in Los Angeles. That’s in Boyle Heights, in my district. The Eastside was the original Jewish haven in Los Angeles. When my mother was growing up, the community was more Jewish than Mexican. And so part of it is stuff I picked up from her. And some of it is stuff I picked up on the streets.