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 secured commitments from members of his caucus that could make him the next Assembly speaker.

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.

Momentum for Perez’s candidacy snowballed this weekend when Assemblyman Felipe Fuetes, D-Sylmar, agreed to end his candidacy and back Perez. That axis of two rival Los Angeles Latino political camps put momentum behind Perez.

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 said.

The Assembly’s Latino Caucus, chaired by De Leon loyalist Tony Mendoza, voted Wednesday to back De Leon. But seven of the caucus’s 17 members were absent – most or all of them Perez supporters —  and De Leon only received seven votes total to lock up the caucus endorsement.

One potential complication for Perez is a potential primary election challenge from Sen. Gilbert Cedillo, D-Los Angeles. Perez backed Cedillo’s opponent, Judy Chu, for Congress last year, and Cedillo is clearly still angry.

Cedillo noted the caucus might want to consider his candidacy before voting for Perez. “I think the role of the Speaker is to serve the members,” he said. “It’s not the job of the members to support the speaker.”

When asked if he might be pressured to drop his Assembly candidacy, Cedillo said, “I don’t respond well to that type of pressure.”

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.

Perez appeared to have a majority of his caucus’s support Tuesday, though that was challenged by De Leon loyalists Wednesday.  De Leon has told members he has support from 22 members of his caucus — four shy of the 26 Democrats informally needed to secure the majority of the caucus. Others have questioned the depth of De Leon’s support.   

 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 he 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.

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 powerful elected official in the state after the governor.

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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