Democrats select Perez as next Assembly speaker

A freshman Democrat from Los Angeles won the unanimous support of his party colleagues Thursday to be the next leader of the California Assembly, a choice that would make John A. Perez the first openly gay lawmaker to hold the powerful post.

Perez, a 40-year-old former labor union official and a cousin of Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, is slated to be confirmed as the next speaker in a floor vote set for early January.

The choice of Perez ended several contentious weeks of infighting among the Assembly’s ruling Democrats -- who hold a 50 to 29 edge over the GOP -- and came only after his chief rival, Assemblyman Kevin de Leon (D-Los Angeles), agreed to a truce and urged supporters to get behind the rookie lawmaker.

Perez emerged from a closed-door meeting of the Democratic Caucus linking arms with De Leon and current Assembly Speaker Karen Bass (D-Los Angeles).

He will enjoy the advantage of potentially having up to five years in the post at a time when California is grappling with its worst fiscal crisis in modern times.

The choice immediately drew plaudits from union leaders and gay-rights activists.

Geoff Kors, executive director of the gay-rights group Equality California, called Perez’s achievement “a truly historic opportunity for our state.”

Friends and colleagues say Perez makes an unlikely trailblazer, with a career more focused on helping organized labor and working families than on advancing gay rights.

“It says more about California than it does about me,” Perez said of his stride toward the history books. “It means that California is a place where everybody has a seat at the table.”

Under terms of an agreement hatched with Bass, who helped recruit Perez as successor with her own tenure set to end next year, the transition would take place over the course of several months. Although a formal timetable has not been outlined in public, Perez might not assume full control until sometime in the spring.

Born into a working-class family on L.A.'s Eastside, Perez earned a political science degree at UC Berkeley, and then became a top official with several unions and the California Labor Federation, focusing on political campaigns and government relations. Though he had not held elected office before last year, Perez was appointed to several city, state and national commissions and boards, including the President’s Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS.

Among his Assembly colleagues, Perez has a reputation as an aggressive and savvy political strategist.