Besting eight colleagues, Los Angeles Democrat Karen Bass secured enough votes Wednesday to become the next Assembly speaker, making her the first African American woman to do so.
Bass, 54, is expected to be formally elected today by both the 48-member Democratic caucus and the full Assembly. She will be considered "speaker designee" until she and current Speaker Fabian Nunez, a fellow Los Angeles Democrat, agree on a transition date, said Nunez spokesman Steve Maviglio.
Bass would become the second woman to serve as Assembly speaker. Doris Allen, a Republican, led the chamber from June to September 1995.
Nunez's term in the Assembly expires in December; if Bass is reelected this year, she may serve through 2010.
Bass won pledges of support from a critical mass of Democrats in the lower house Wednesday, beating a pack of contenders for the speakership. Jousting for the leadership post began after voters defeated Proposition 93 on the Feb. 5 ballot. That measure would have allowed Nunez and other legislators to seek reelection rather than be forced to leave their positions at the end of this year.
A community activist and physician's assistant whose Assembly seat is her first elected office, Bass is well regarded by her colleagues and has served as Nunez's majority leader. She has focused on foster care issues since her 2004 election to represent the 47th Assembly District, which includes Baldwin Hills, Culver City and parts of Koreatown, South Los Angeles and the Westside.
"I just spoke to Karen a few minutes ago and congratulated her and wished her well," said Assemblyman Anthony Portantino (D-La Canada Flintridge), who had sought the speakership himself.
"It's a historic occasion, and I look forward to continuing to work with her to benefit the state of California," he said. "I know she's going to do a great job."
Though Nunez had set a March 11 date for the Assembly's majority Democratic caucus to elect its new leader, Bass secured majority support Wednesday evening after Assemblywoman Fiona Ma (D-San Francisco) and Assemblyman Kevin De Leon (D-Los Angeles) -- both speaker candidates -- gave her their backing. Nunez then called members into his office one by one, and momentum behind Bass grew, Ma said.
"Karen and I have the same base of supporters," Ma said, "and it was very evident that she was committed to staying and being speaker."
Bass was not available for comment Wednesday night.
The post of speaker involves negotiating the budget and major public policy legislation with the governor, the Senate leader and the minority party leaders in both houses.
Besides Portantino, Ma and De Leon, other Democrats seeking the job had included Charles Calderon of Montebello, Hector De La Torre of South Gate, Mike Feuer of Los Angeles, Ed Hernandez of Baldwin Park and Alberto Torrico of Newark.
In throwing their support to Bass, members had to weigh her potential longevity in the job. Not only is she termed out in just two years, she may have the option next year of running for either a Los Angeles City Council or state Senate seat. Bass assured her colleagues that she would not depart early, according to Ma.
"She said she was committed to staying in the Assembly if she was elected speaker, and she really wanted to do this job," said Ma, who praised Bass' integrity and intelligence. "She is in public service for the right reasons. It was kind of her time."
Nunez was elected speaker in his second year in the Assembly and has led the 80-member house since February 2004, the longest stint of any speaker since voters imposed term limits on the Legislature in 1990.
Raised in the Venice/Fairfax area, Bass taught in USC's physician's assistant program until the crack epidemic -- which she witnessed firsthand at the USC trauma center -- spurred her to create the Community Coalition, a nonprofit group that worked to close or convert liquor stores in South Los Angeles, attract more funding to local schools and organize residents.
Bass' only daughter, Emilia, was a 23-year-old newlywed just months shy of graduating from Loyola Marymount University when she and her husband, Michael Wright, also 23, were killed in a car crash near Los Angeles International Airport in 2006.