Speaker-to-be Pérez knows what he’s in for

Capitol Journal

John Pérez is easy to like: pleasant, articulate and thoughtful, exuding calm and candor.

And self-confidence. Why not? The Los Angeles native was just chosen by fellow Democrats to be the next state Assembly speaker after only one year in elective office. Quite a political feat, even with term-limit turnover.

Being likable doesn’t make one a leader, but it’s a start.

Pérez will be California’s first openly gay legislative leader.


“This means there’s one less barrier for people,” says the 40-year-old. “When I grew up, there were only a handful of Latino state elected officials and there weren’t any openly gay ones. So I never thought I would be in office. . . .

“It speaks to the fact that California has a sophisticated electorate that struggles with issues of gay rights but really is driven by an overwhelming sense of fairness.”

Pérez’s elevation to the speakership from caucus chairman was a stunner. He’d been planning to run for the state Senate with the blessing of two former speakers from L.A., Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa -- Pérez’s much older cousin -- and Fabian Nuñez. Assemblyman Kevin De Leon of Los Angeles had been slotted for speaker. For whatever reason, many Assembly Democrats became dissatisfied with De Leon -- he was pushing too hard, some said -- and recruited Pérez.

Pérez says he was drafted because colleagues were looking for relative longevity in leadership. He’ll be eligible to serve five years, although four probably will be tops before he’s pushed out by a successor. De Leon, because of term limits, could have been speaker only two years, the same as the soon-to-depart L.A. Democrat Karen Bass.

But like most legislators of the majority party, Pérez secretly coveted the powerful post. “To say I never thought of it would be lying,” he admits.

I interviewed Pérez on Friday in his small office suite behind the Assembly chamber. Some time early next year, he’ll move to the speaker’s ornate layout at the chamber’s entrance, the best digs in the Capitol.

Right now, Pérez is saying all the right things and seems to mean them.

“Simplistically, people would like to put me in a box that says, ‘Another Union Guy,’ ” says the career labor official (United Food and Commercial Workers and, before that, the California Labor Federation). “But while I’m proud of my union credentials, the whole idea in the private-sector labor movement is that there has to be a symbiotic relationship between the workers and the employers.

“There’s a healthy tension. . . but there’s an absolute understanding that if employers don’t grow their market shares and their profits, you’re not doing a very good job as a labor leader because you’re undermining your ability to grow your membership.”

So one of his “core missions” next year, Pérez says, is to generate business and job growth.

“The state has to figure out with local government and business how we can give local government new tools to attract and grow business,” he says.

Another core mission, of course, is to balance the budget. It’s again bleeding, with $21 billion in red ink projected over the next 18 months.

The priority, Pérez says, is to fill the hole “in a way that’s as humane as possible in the spirit of shared sacrifice so we don’t focus the hurt on the most vulnerable.”

“But if we only focus on the budget deficit and not economic recovery, we’ve failed.”

Is it possible to balance the budget without raising taxes? “The best way is a mixed approach: [spending] cuts and targeted taxes and fees. That is very difficult when a two-thirds vote is required” to pass money bills.

But, he asserts, “we can’t continue to kick the can down the road by just repackaging some of our debt. That makes no sense.”

He continues: “People frustrated with government don’t have a problem cutting public employees. But you cut public employees in a place like Sacramento, you devastate the local economy. You close down state parks, guess what? All those mom-and-pop businesses . . . get hurt. . . .

“There’s something to be said for having as balanced an approach as we can.”

Pérez also says he wants to focus on what should be “a core function” of the Legislature: oversight of state agencies and “reevaluation of some of the bills we’ve passed. Have we effectuated the outcomes we thought we would?”

You’d think this would be commonplace, if not automatic.

I ask: What’s wrong with Sacramento? Why’s it so dysfunctional?

“Democracy is messy generally,” Pérez replies.

“The other thing is the structure we have here. Term limits is the single biggest challenge. . . . I have Republican colleagues here that I really like. And I know if we had a long time together we could do things because people would have the freedom to move out of the small boxes that have constrained them. . . .

“Partisanship is exacerbated by term limits. Many people worry about what they’ll do next. So it magnifies their concern for being on the right side of core interest groups for their next race.”

Another problem is initiatives, he says. “Look at our debt obligations that are the result of ballot-box budgeting!” One example he cites: a $980-million children’s hospital bond approved by voters last year, costing the state $64 million annually for 30 years.

There’s also the two-thirds vote hurdle. “What it does is create a minoritarian system of government that frustrates voters because they don’t know who to hold accountable.”

And the price of obtaining a two-thirds majority, he notes, often is expensive pork.

But those are the cards -- the arduous challenges -- that the next speaker has been dealt.

He asked for the seat at the table. We’ll find out next year whether he’s up to the job, assuming anybody is. I wouldn’t bet against him.