A three-way competition for the job of Assembly speaker deteriorated into a "he said, she said" affair Tuesday that complicated a long-running stalemate among three Los Angeles-area lawmakers vying for the job.
Assembly Speaker Herb Wesson (D-Culver City) must leave the Legislature in December 2004 because of term limits, and he has said he will step down as speaker in March.
Many Democrats have been eager to get a new speaker in place to begin preparing for the March primary election and to deal with the new Republican administration of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
The Assembly speaker is one of the most powerful people in state government and meets regularly with the governor and Senate leaders to determine state policy.
Three Democrats who have been leading contenders for the job -- Dario Frommer of Los Feliz, Jenny Oropeza of Long Beach and Fabian Nunez of Los Angeles -- have been unable to win over a majority of the Democrats, who hold 48 of 80 seats in the Assembly.
The race took a strange turn Tuesday evening when at least 10 supporters of Frommer met to discuss plans for him to bow out of the race and instead support Nunez.
The Frommer supporters, many of them the more moderate members of the Legislature, asked Nunez and Oropeza to address them separately.
In her meeting with the group, according to several legislative sources, Oropeza said that she had met with Nunez a week earlier and that he had agreed to bow out of the race and turn his support to her. Oropeza described the meeting as taking place in Burbank and involving Richie Ross, a Democratic political consultant, who was acting as a broker on behalf of Nunez .
Nunez, addressing the same group after Oropeza, denied that such a meeting with Oropeza had taken place or that he had offered her his support, sources said.
"Each of them described meetings that supposedly did occur or didn't occur in completely different ways," said Assemblyman Joe Canciamilla (D-Pittsburg), who heard each account. "There's no way of reconciling it."
"It's important to me that we get to the bottom of this," said Assemblyman Mark Ridley-Thomas (D-Los Angeles). "We have to have a speaker who members believe will tell the truth."
Ross is the target of pending legislation by Frommer aimed at his dual roles as a political consultant and a lobbyist. Ross did not respond to requests for an interview.
On Wednesday, a spokesman for Oropeza said she "couldn't confirm" that a deal over the speakership had been struck between her and Nunez .
Nunez said: "If I had given Jenny my support, I would have signed her letter," referring to a letter Oropeza has been circulating endorsing her as speaker.
"I'm not going to air Assembly Democratic laundry in public," he said.
"I'm hopeful that the Assembly Democrats in a responsible, professional, mature manner are going to identify the next leader in a timely fashion.
"We have to clearly stay united, and I'm working very hard to try and get to the speakership. A couple of roadblocks and obstacles have been put in my path, but I'm forging ahead."
Frommer refused to discuss the race for the speakership Wednesday, but several other lawmakers said he is still in the running.