He got the bug early, walking precincts in his Los Angeles neighborhood at the age of 14, talking politics with aplomb, prompting adults to marvel and agree: John Pérez was going places.
Now, after his rookie year as a Sacramento lawmaker, Pérez is on the cusp of catapulting from a relatively obscure spot in the state Assembly to its most powerful position, the speaker’s chair. Assembly Democrats are expected to formally vote him into office next month.
A former union official who grew up in the neighborhoods of Highland Park and El Sereno and is a cousin of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, Pérez bested more seasoned competitors in a long, behind-the-scenes battle for the speakership.
It’s a job where he hopes to stay a while, a rarity in the era of term limits. As a freshman legislator, Pérez will have the opportunity to spend five years as the chamber’s leader, a feat pulled off by only one other freshman, former Speaker Fabian Nuñez, also a Los Angeles Democrat.
The 40-year-old lawmaker will also become the state’s first openly gay legislative leader, making him among the most prominent openly gay political figures in the country.
Those who know him best say his precocious rise to power is no surprise. “John was born with that certain DNA,” said Bob Hertzberg, a former Assembly speaker who has known Pérez for decades.
Sacramento labor lobbyist Barry Broad, a friend for years, illustrates Pérez’s political acumen this way: “John’s the sort,” he said, “who can be in a room full of Jewish people and know more Yiddish than anyone.”
Elected last year to a district that covers parts of Los Angeles’ Eastside and downtown as well as smaller neighboring cities, Pérez has proved himself a skilled political animal. He raised $1 million in campaign cash, then in his first year shrewdly steered legislation back from the dead to help a powerful and deep-pocketed Los Angeles company.
In recent weeks, he showed a steely ambition in the final days of a nasty speakership fight. His three opponents each boasted several years more experience, including the presumptive front-runner, Assemblyman Kevin De Leon (D-Los Angeles), who represents a neighboring Eastside district.
In the final days of that fight, De Leon’s supporters accused Pérez of a double-cross, saying he had circled back on a promise to support De Leon. Pérez tells a different story, saying he simply answered the call of colleagues who were eager to break a logjam in the long leadership fight.
His support of a measure to help Anschutz Entertainment Group, which owns Staples Center and LA Live and is one of the city’s most politically influential companies, was also telling, both as an example of his political skill and his willingness to work with people whose views he does not share.
AEG had been seeking legislative approval of a bill that would allow alcohol advertisements inside its Club Nokia. The bill died in the Legislature’s regular session, then was revived with Pérez’s help in the special session that ostensibly was called to deal with the state’s water problems.
Pérez admits to actively disliking the company’s billionaire owner, Philip Anschutz, a significant backer of the Proposition 8 gay-marriage ban, but says he “looked beyond my personal dislike for the man to do what was best for a downtown business.”
Pérez learned to work the room as the baby in a family of five children. “I was affectionately referred to as an accident,” Perez quips about his place in the family dynamic.
His father, Felipe, emigrated from Mexico’s Jalisco state in 1951 and within two years mastered English, then was disabled in an industrial accident when John was a baby. His mother, Vera, became the family breadwinner and rose from a receptionist’s job at a community clinic to running the place by the time she retired.
Pérez got tossed toward politics early because of threats during the 1980s to cut government funds for his mother’s clinic and his father’s disability check. The impact of political decision-making “came right home,” Pérez recalled.
Hertzberg remembers meeting Pérez when he volunteered for an Assembly campaign in 1986. The candidate, Mike Hernandez, lost, but Perez, who was 15 at the time, “was on top of stuff,” Hertzberg said. “The kid was a contender. He was sharp.”
Pérez became class president at Franklin High School, then went on to UC Berkeley, standing out for his facile mind -- and a propensity for unbridled oration.
Margaret Fortune, a Berkeley classmate who is now a member of the California State University board of trustees, recalled how Pérez would set his wristwatch on a table as a timer before speeches to the student government, and then inevitably fail to cut himself short.
“John can talk,” Fortune said, adding that she considers Pérez “extraordinarily bright.”
Pérez moved on to help the Los Angeles recovery effort after the 1992 riots and became a rising star in the union movement.
He worked as an organizer during a five-month strike by Southern California drywall installers, served a stint with the California Labor Federation and ultimately became political director for the United Food and Commercial Workers.
Pérez also drew a wider political circle, winning a post on a presidential commission on HIV and serving a dozen years as a trustee of the California League of Conservation Voters as well as stints on several Los Angeles commissions.
It didn’t hurt that Villaraigosa was gaining steam as a Sacramento politician, winning the speaker’s post in 1998. Friends, however, say Pérez always has worked to stand on his own merits.
“We are very close,” Pérez said of his relationship with the mayor. “I probably see my cousins more often than most people see their siblings.”
Many conservative players in Sacramento remain wary of Pérez because of his union credentials and overall liberal approach.
“He’s just another Democrat who will be captive to the unions and whose only solution to every problem in California will be to raise taxes,” said Jon Fleischman, a conservative blogger and vice chairman of the state Republican Party.
But despite his 15 years working for unions, Pérez these days is broadcasting a desire to find common ground between labor and business.
“I’m a trade unionist, and I don’t apologize for that,” Pérez said. “But there is a sweet spot. There is this balance between what you get for working folks, and what you need to expand business.”
Bill Dombrowski, president of the California Retailers Assn., said business leaders would make a mistake if they dismiss Pérez.
“If people view him just as a union guy they are going to be sorely wrong,” said Dombrowski, who considers Pérez -- despite his liberal credentials -- an old-school “pragmatist.”
Pérez says he dislikes labels, be it mayor’s cousin, union guy or gay politician.
He may have carried a bill expanding funding for gay victims of domestic abuse, but Pérez says his proudest achievement was pushing through a bill designed to force the reconstruction of the fetid tap water system in Maywood, one of the region’s most heavily Latino areas.
“Yes I’m gay, and I’m a politician,” Pérez said. “It is a descriptor. I don’t think it’s a definer.”