People who know Fabian Nunez well warn against being deceived by his boyish face and kid-next-door demeanor.
In their view, the 36-year-old freshman Democratic legislator from Los Angeles may be young and inexperienced as he prepares to become Assembly speaker, one of the most powerful political positions in California. But he is also a quick learner, a passionate advocate for the poor and a man who loves to win.
Miguel Contreras, executive secretary-treasurer of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, where Nunez served as political director for two years, called Nunez "team-oriented, very pragmatic, very compassionate."
And, said Contreras, alluding to a key role of any speaker, "he knows how to raise funds."
On Thursday, Nunez locked up enough votes to become the next speaker of the 80-member Assembly. He is expected to take over the speakership from Herb Wesson (D-Culver City) sometime next year.
The son of a Mexican gardener and maid, born in San Diego and raised in Tijuana with 11 brothers and sisters, Nunez fell in love with politics by the time he was 20.
After wrapping up a double major in political science and education at Pitzer College in Pomona, Nunez said, he ran his first political campaign in 1989. His first client, a candidate for mayor of Pomona, lost by 98 votes, but Nunez was hooked.
He taught English as a second language, managed campaigns and lobbied in Sacramento for the Los Angeles Unified School District. Then, in 2002, he ran for the 46th Assembly District in downtown Los Angeles, a district that includes his home in Bunker Hill as well as Boyle Heights, Pico-Union, Maywood and Vernon. He is a divorced father of three children.
Between January and September of this year, Nunez raised $326,000, much of it from labor unions and corporations, and distributed more than $60,000 to fellow colleagues and candidates for state and local races.
His fund-raising and spending was more than double that of the two other serious contenders for the speakership.
From his first day in the Assembly, Nunez was viewed as a likely speaker, even by Republicans.
"When I saw Fabian for the first time, I thought he'd be speaker one day if they [Democrats] stayed in the majority," said Assembly member Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield), a 38-year-old freshman who will become leader of the minority Republicans in January. The two men became friends in their freshman orientation class and play basketball together.
"I always gave Fabian the edge because, after hours, when you look out, Fabian always had members around him," McCarthy said. "And the only people who vote for speaker are lawmakers."
Nunez' fellow Democrats describe him as affable, likable, a Democrat to his core who is committed to finding consensus. They predicted he will work well with Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
At a meeting between Nunez and the new governor Wednesday, "there was a very positive rapport," said Assemblyman Marco Firebaugh (D-Los Angeles), who was also at the meeting.
Nunez "knows his responsibility is to govern for the best of California," Firebaugh said.
On the Assembly floor, Nunez championed the controversial bill that would allow illegal immigrants to apply for driver's licenses. It was signed into law by former Gov. Gray Davis, but Schwarzenegger has demanded its repeal.
In the floor debate over the bill, Nunez urged his colleagues to "leave our anti-immigrant biases outside" and focus on the benefits of having illegal immigrants tested and insured when they drive in California.
Nunez is now part of the debate among Assembly Democrats over whether to simply repeal that law or craft a compromise that contains tougher security measures.