John Perez closes in on speakership

First-term Assemblyman John Perez, an ally of organized labor and cousin of Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, has launched a campaign to capture the Assembly speakership, and his allies say he has secured the support from a majority of Assembly Democrats.

Perez entered the race after a number of  his Assembly colleagues mounted an effort to draft him as a speakership candidate. Capitol sources said if Perez is able to secure a majority of his caucus, the vote on a new speaker could come by next week, when the Assembly reconvenes to vote on education legislation. 

On Wednesday, incumbent Speaker Karen Bass endorsed Perez. She said she expects the full Assembly Democratic Caucus to vote on a new speaker on December 10.

One of those involved in the Draft Perez movement was Assemblyman Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael. Huffman told Capitol Weekly Tuesday, "I believe John now has the votes. I think it's over." 

Despite the movement toward Perez, Assemblymember Kevin de Leon, D-Los Angeles, said he was still a candidate for the job and the race was too close to call.

"I believe it's still up in the air," he told Capitol Weekly

Huffman said the pivotal moment came when Assemblyman Anthony Portantino, D-La Canada Flintridge, dropped out of the race and pledged his support to Perez.

This week, the Assembly  is scheduled to hold a check-in session Wednesday, and the Latino Caucus also plans to meet.

Perez did not appear to have a majority of his caucus's support Tuesday, but momentum for his bid was clearly growing. Assemblyman Kevin de Leon, D-Los Angeles, another candidate for the job, has told members he has support from 22 members of his caucus — four shy of the 26 Democrats informally needed to secure the job. 

Neither Perez nor De Leon's office immediately returned calls seeking comment. 

Perez's backers said they were excited by his entry into the race. “I am supporting him,” said Assemblywoman Fiona Ma, D-San Francisco, who has been a speakership candidate herself. “I believe the institution will be best served by a speaker who will be here for another five years.”

Bass had asked speakership candidates to wait until after the new year to discuss a timeline to hand off the speaker's gavel. But her supporters say Bass did not seem to discourage the talk of a Perez speakership this week. 

Perez has long maintained he was not a candidate for speaker, insisting instead that he would run for the Senate seat being vacated by Sen. Gilbert Cedillo, D-Los Angeles. But Perez emerged as a strong speakership alternative to Portantino and De Leon,  who have long sought the speakership, but have been unable to put together the votes necessary to secure the job.

“People have been trying to draft him for the last year,” said Ma of Perez. “He has a very diverse group of folks supporting him.”

Among those said to be backing Perez’s bid are many Assemblymembers who have been loyal to Bass, including Assemblywomen Mary Hayashi, D-Hayward, and Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley. Capitol sources say Assemblymembers Felipe Fuentes, D-Sylmar, and some members who have backed Fuentes’s speakership bid are now on board with Perez.

Perez has the resume one would expect of a modern speaker. He has long ties to labor, and is from Los Angeles. Perez, a former leader of the United Food and Commercial Workers union, is also the cousin of Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.

If he wins the job, he would also be the first openly gay speaker in California history.

The Draft Perez movement grew out of dissatisfaction over the current crop of speakership candidates, and a desire to have a speaker that could serve for five years, Capitol sources said. De Leon rankled some Democrats, in part because was viewed as too close to former Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez, Bass’ predecessor. He later stepped out from Nunez’s shadow and became a top lieutenant to Bass, but made little secret of his desire for the speakership. De Leon courted members’ support for the job and actively sought to form a power base.

Similarly, Portantino openly campaigned for the Assembly’s top job, angering both Nunez and Bass during his three years in office.

However, Perez – at least on paper – appears very similar to Nunez. Like the former speaker, Perez is from Los Angeles, is a major player in the Los Angeles labor movement, is a Latino and is a freshman. Perez’s family ties to Villaraigosa also have proven politically useful in the Latino community. He also has a reputation for being a demanding leader, but seems well liked by members of his caucus.

In the era of term limits, approved by voters in 1990, members of the Assembly are limited to three, two-year terms. That makes it virtually impossible to wield the kind of power that earlier speakers enjoyed, such as Willie Brown or the late Jesse Unruh, both Democrats. Each was considered the second-most pow
erful elected official in the state after the governor.

Bass’ speakership has been marked by virtually interminable budget battles, and the new speaker is not likely to find the job much different.

The latest budget estimates place the state in a $21 billion hole through the middle of 2011, and a new round of painful cuts is all but certain.

The Assembly has 49 Democrats, 30 Republicans and one independent. To be elected speaker, a member needs 41 votes.

Perez, who represents L.A.’s 46th Assembly District, grew up in the working class communities of El Sereno and Highland Park, and spent more than 15 years in the local labor movement, according to his official biography.

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