Democratic state Sen. Kevin de León of Los Angeles was elected by his peers Monday to become the next president pro tem of the Senate. He said his priorities as leader will include restoring public trust in the Legislature after a series of scandals.
De León, the son of a single housekeeper who traveled by bus daily from her poor Logan Heights neighborhood to jobs in San Diego's richest enclaves, is scheduled to formally take over from the current leader, Sen. Darrell Steinberg, on Oct. 15, just before Steinberg leaves office.
However, De León is stepping in immediately as the chief strategist over Democratic Senate campaigns for the November election in hopes of regaining a supermajority.
De León, 47, will be the first Los Angeles resident to lead the state Senate in two decades and the first Latino to hold the position since 1883.
Steinberg called it a "watershed moment" in California's modern history. He praised De León for his ability to build consensus on issues including a bill last year that provides driver's licenses to immigrants in the country illegally.
"Kevin is smart. He is seasoned. He is hungry to get big things done," Steinberg said in his nominating speech. "He is unafraid to lead."
The vote Monday was unanimous by voice, and no one else was nominated. De León takes over a Senate in turmoil, with three Democratic members facing criminal charges.
"I think what happened was an amazing anomaly when you have three individuals [charged] in a short window of time; but we have moved forward with new Senate rules, with a blackout period, with an important, objective ombudsman," De León said after the unanimous, bipartisan vote.
De León supported Steinberg's policy of resisting Republican demands to expel lawmakers facing criminal charges, including Sen. Roderick Wright of the Inglewood area, whom a jury found guilty of eight felonies, including perjury and voter fraud for lying about living in his district.
Wright's fate may be known next month when a judge decides whether to uphold the verdict. Sens. Ronald S. Calderon of Montebello and Leland Yee of San Francisco have been indicted by federal authorities in separate cases alleging that they offered official actions in exchange for payments.
De León has been part of a group of senators who have proposed tougher ethics rules. He sponsored a resolution that creates a blackout on campaign fundraising by senators during the last month of the session.
On Monday, the Senate also approved legislation that would put the blackout period into law for both the Senate and Assembly during 60 days at the end of session.
The criminal cases have left Senate Democrats two votes short of a supermajority since March, and they hope to regain the advantage in this year's elections despite a primary in which Republican candidates in some key races had big vote leads over Democratic candidates.
"It was a much larger spread than I think a lot of folks anticipated," De León acknowledged to reporters. "There is no doubt about it: We have our work cut out for us. We are going to do everything humanly possible to get the supermajority back."