Kevin de León becomes state Senate leader in $50,000 event

State Sen. Kevin de León is sworn in as California Senate leader

In an elaborate event at Walt Disney Concert Hall featuring mariachis, a Korean drum circle and a student color guard, Democrat Kevin de León was sworn in Wednesday as leader of the state Senate — the first Latino to hold the post since 1883.

The $50,000 celebration was labeled an inauguration and paid for with foundation money from corporate interests with regular business before lawmakers. It fit the historic nature of the occasion, planners said.

Others suggested it was an inappropriate extravagance at a time when the state Senate is struggling to shake off the taint of corruption scandals and regain public trust.

De León, a member of the Legislature for eight years, called the Frank Gehry-designed hall, home to the L.A. Philharmonic, "a grand public building" that symbolized the state.

"What a beautiful venue," the Los Angeles lawmaker said after California Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye swore him in as state Senate president pro tempore.

"This is a grand public building and the centerpiece of my district," De León said. "Now I chose this venue because it is close to the working families who … put me in office. It is also a visual representation of the innovative spirit that is California."

Nearly 2,000 people attended the ceremony, including Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris, Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins (D-San Diego), UC President Janet Napolitano, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and former Gov. Gray Davis.

After De León's speech, the crowd moved to a party outside on a closed stretch of Grand Avenue. Hundreds of people gathered to sample a variety of food-truck offerings such as gourmet hot dogs, boba tea and fattoush salads.

The event's price tag, which organizers said covered the cost of renting the downtown landmark as well as food, drinks and security, was paid for by the California Latino Legislative Caucus Foundation.

In the last 12 months, the nonprofit foundation has received checks from oil companies, health and insurance firms, charter school groups, utilities and the cable TV industry, according to filings with the state ethics agency by Democratic Sen. Ricardo Lara of Bell Gardens, chairman of the caucus.

AT&T and Chevron, both of which lobbied on several bills this year, were the biggest donors, contributing $25,000 each. The pharmaceutical industry, which often has matters before the state, also donated: Bayer and the Japanese drug-maker Eisai each gave the foundation $10,000.

Other donors included Verizon Wireless, Kraft Food Group, FedEx, the California Nurses Assn., the Western Growers Assn., the Assn. of California Life and Health Insurance Companies, the California Charter Schools Assn., Herbalife and Safeway.

The grocery chain was part of a coalition that lobbied for a bill recently signed into law, co-authored by De León, Lara and others, that bans single-use plastic bags from supermarket checkout stands and allows stores to charge 10 cents for alternative sacks.

Wednesday's event was a departure from the typically lower-profile swearing-in ceremonies of other legislative leaders. Its funding, although legal, was unseemly, said Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn.

If the funding from major donors includes "industries subject to regulation by the Legislature, we think it just looks bad," Coupal said.

Democrat Peter Choi, who is challenging De León in next month's election, joined others in dubbing the swearing-in a "coronation" that showed the power of special interests in the Capitol.

"Clearly this event is not about installing the incoming Senate president as it is giving a seat to special interests closer to the center of power," he said.

Foundation spokesman Roger Salazar said the public had no reason to be concerned about lawmakers' loyalties.

"The Foundation has a broad cross-section of supporters, many with differing viewpoints and interests," he said. "The one thing it seems they all have in common is a desire to improve California's Latino community."

A Safeway executive said the company's $1,000 donation to the foundation was solely to support a worthy group.

"Safeway supports organizations that do good work in the communities we serve," Brian Dowling, a vice president for Safeway, said in an email.

Lara also pointed to the milestone nature of De León's achievement.

"For the Latino Caucus Foundation, this is a historic event," Lara said. "We don't want to take lightly what a historic precedence this has."

In his speech, De León, who was raised in a San Diego barrio by an immigrant single mother and made it to the statehouse, said his life story showed a path that should be available to every child.

"Yes, I rose out of poverty thanks to a dedicated mother who labored on her hands and knees so I could have a better life. And because of the teachers who believed in me and allowed me to get a college education," he said.

"Sadly, millions of kids today living in poverty simply won't ever have the same opportunities I had."

De León said leaders must balance competing needs — fiscal discipline and investment in California's youth — an approach that is both critical for the future of the state and morally correct.

"Austerity alone doesn't build a future," he said. "California's long-term economic success depends on the investments we make today.

"To be truly great," the senator said, "we must target our investments to make certain more kids have a fair shot at their own California Dream."

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