Nunez's Path to Speaker's Post Eased as 2 Bow Out

Times Staff Writer

Two of three contenders for the top post in the state Assembly dropped out Thursday, leaving freshman Fabian Nunez, a left-of-center Democrat and former union organizer, as the likely next leader of the Legislature's lower house.

Nunez, 36, one of a dozen children of immigrant day laborers, is the favorite pick of current Speaker Herb Wesson (D-Culver City). If he receives a majority vote of supporters on the Assembly floor, Nunez will become the fourth consecutive speaker chosen from the Los Angeles area.

Nunez said his priorities were to unite fellow Democrats and reach out to Republicans.

"You're going to see the two of us working very closely together," he said.

Nunez said he had the support of 44 of the 48 Democrats in the Assembly. To become speaker, a member must win at least 41 votes of the 80-member body. Nunez predicted that the Democratic caucus would vote to support him Monday, and a vote of the full Assembly would come the first week of January.

Exactly when Nunez would take the helm from Wesson has yet to be arranged. Wesson, 52, must leave the Legislature in December 2004 because of term limits, but he has said he would like to remain as speaker until after the primary election in March.

"This is something that he and I have to work out," Wesson said.

Though the power of Assembly speaker has diminished in the last decade -- due to the revolving-door leaderships prompted by term limits -- it remains one of the most important positions in state government. Besides determining state policy with Senate leaders and the governor, the speaker sets the agenda, rules and speed by which half of the Legislature conducts business. The speaker also assigns fellow lawmakers to head committees, distributes money for staff salaries and office expenses, and is expected to raise money to help fellow party members.

Nunez became the sole remaining candidate after Assembly members Jenny Oropeza (D-Long Beach) and Dario Frommer (D-Los Feliz) dropped out of the three-way internal race Thursday morning. Since September, the three had been locked in stalemate, with none able to win over a majority of Democrats. Democrats dominate the Assembly, and, if they remain united, enjoy the prerogative to choose the leader of the entire house.

"He has a majority of the Democratic caucus and I'm very hopeful and somewhat confident that he will have the support of the entire Democratic caucus," said Assemblyman Marco Firebaugh (D-Los Angeles), majority floor leader.

Both Wesson and Nunez spring from Los Angeles' Democratic establishment. Wesson served for years as the top aide to Los Angeles County Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke and former Los Angeles City Councilman Nate Holden. Nunez , as the political director for the Los Angeles Federation of Labor, helped win Wesson the backing of labor when he first ran for the Assembly.

Though Wesson heralded Nunez as "my choice for speaker," Nunez never held the clear lead in the internal race for speaker until Thursday.

Assembly Democrats had been divided three ways for several months, with many women members backing Oropeza, moderate members backing Frommer and many Latinos backing Nunez. But pressure had been building for a new leader to be chosen quickly to begin dealing with the new Republican administration of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The stalemate began crumbling Tuesday evening, when Frommer sought to bow out of the race in favor of Nunez. His supporters asked to hear from both Nunez and Oropeza separately. Oropeza claimed that Nunez had agreed a week earlier to throw his support behind her. Nunez, in a separate interview with Frommer's supporters, denied the claim.

The circumstances remained a mystery Thursday to many members. Oropeza told her supporters in a conference call Thursday morning that she had done the math and did not have the votes she needed to replace Wesson.

"With my support, a clear majority of the Democratic caucus is backing Fabian Nunez to be the next speaker," said Oropeza in a written statement. "I believe he'll be an excellent speaker."

Nunez, a divorced father of three, has one year of experience in the Legislature, whereas Oropeza and Frommer were elected in 2000. That rankled some members, who feared that Nunez was too green to lead the house. But Wesson said Nunez 's freshman status would give him longevity as speaker. Theoretically, Nunez could serve as speaker until 2008.

"I learned early on that one of the weaknesses in the Assembly was the tenure of the speaker," said Wesson, who became speaker 21 months ago, "so I was committed to one way or the other to establish some stability."

Nunez said his top goals were to restore voters' confidence in government and make the Assembly once again a "house of ideas."

"It's an honor and a privilege to be public servants," he said, "and we've got to get back to that."

Nunez would take control of an often unruly house divided by partisanship. Unlike the Senate, whose 40 members serve four-year terms, the Assembly is in constant flux with newcomers who serve two-year terms. Assembly members must continually gear up for reelection or election to another office before they are forced out by term limits after six years.

The Assembly speakership was once a job held for long stretches by virtual rulers such as Jesse M. Unruh, who served more than seven years, and Willie Brown, who was ousted after 14 years because of term limits approved by voters in 1990.

Since Brown left the speakership in 1995, no Assembly leader has served more than two years and two months.

On Thursday, Democrats appeared to rally behind Nunez.

"What's important now is that we have a new speaker," said Assemblyman Mark Leno (D-San Francisco). A supporter of Oropeza, Leno said he called Nunez on Thursday to offer his loyalty and support.

"We have enormous amounts of work to do," he said, "and now we just have to focus on the work."

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