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California

John Pérez is a fighter, but not always a winner

Reporting from Sacramento -- Earlier this year, with the scandal-plagued city of Vernon dominating headlines, Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez took the unusual step of working the floor in the Legislature’s other house, buttonholing fellow Democrats to endorse his bill to dissolve the industrial enclave in his Los-Angeles based district.

He placed the bill before senators one by one, handed them a pen and watched them sign. It was a signal to lawmakers that the measure was a priority for the man in what is commonly referred to as the second most powerful post in California government.

But when the bill went before the Senate last month, Pérez watched from the other side of the Capitol as it fell eight votes short of passage. Ten of his Democratic coauthors denied him their votes.

By many measures, Pérez, who cut his teeth in the Los Angeles labor movement, has had a successful 18 months as speaker. He has kept his caucus mostly happy and helped increase its ranks at election time. But the defeat of the Vernon bill and his public feuds with other lawmakers have led to whispers in Capitol watering holes and cloakrooms: His inexperience is showing.

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Some, both inside and outside the Capitol, said he has consolidated power in his own house but not cultivated the relationships leaders need to advance their agendas in the Legislature.

“I love his politics, and I love him,” said former state Sen. Sheila Kuehl, a Democrat from Santa Monica who has known him for two decades. “But I think he’s made the choice to act as if he can make something happen by ordering it.”

In the run-up to the Vernon vote, several of the bill’s opponents said Pérez either killed or threatened to hold their legislation hostage as a way to muscle their votes. On Tuesday, state Sen. Kevin De Leon (D-Los Angeles) complained in a letter to the speaker that he learned from an oil lobbyist that his pet environmental bill was dying in the Assembly.

Pérez was ignoring the needs of the southeast Los Angeles communities they both represent, De Leon contended, and giving the oil industry “a free pass for business as usual.”

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Reclining in a chair on a balcony off the Assembly floor recently, Pérez , the son of a Mexican immigrant and a cousin of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, denied killing others’ bills. He brushed off the criticism between puffs of a Montecristo cigar.

“If I were a bully,” he said, laughing, “I would get my way.”

The Assembly’s Democrats elected him leader in his freshman term — as the state’s first openly gay speaker — hoping to give him a relatively long tenure in the term-limits era. Many rush to praise him as an attentive master and astute strategist, focused on protecting his Democratic majority.

“He treats members like adults,” said Assemblywoman Fiona Ma (D-San Francisco), one of his lieutenants. “He understands his job is to problem-solve and keep peace in the house.”

His supporters credit him for championing a ballot initiative last year that made the Legislature able to pass state budgets with a simple majority. He helped save an embattled child-care program from the chopping block. He shepherded two big bills through the Assembly in recent weeks: Gov. Jerry Brown’s tax plan and special treatment for a proposed football stadium in Los Angeles.

But despite the praise for him as a savvy operator when he was sworn in as speaker last year, others say Pérez lacks sufficient grace for the job. Many lobbyists, lawmakers and legislative staffers consider him thin-skinned and arrogant, though they will say so only in private. They fear angering the man who can bestow or yank powerful committee assignments, boost or kill legislation and award or withhold campaign cash.

“You can make the argument that he has not made the transition from somebody who is butting heads in the labor movement to someone who has to build coalitions,” said Democratic strategist Darry Sragow.

In one of his first acts as a leader, even before he took the post, Pérez picked a partisan fight with then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Pérez led the Assembly vote against confirmation of Schwarzenegger’s Republican nominee for the vacant lieutenant governor’s job, a largely ceremonial backwater.

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Capitol insiders say Pérez revels in the power of his office. He sits behind the massive desk that once belonged to Willie Brown, the self-proclaimed “ayatollah of the Assembly” who kept an iron grip on the chamber. Pérez had the desk pulled out of storage.

Pérez demanded this year that all 52 Assembly Democrats stand together on the state budget, although not all of their votes were needed for passage. He said the unanimity would demonstrate their strength, according to people who were in the room.

Assemblyman Anthony Portantino (D-La Cañada Flintridge) declined, becoming the sole member of his party to vote against the budget. Within days, Pérez had Portantino’s office budget slashed, saying the lawmaker had overspent. Portantino went public.

“You have to do what he tells you 100% of the time or you run afoul of him,” Portantino said. “He told me in no uncertain terms that the Democratic caucus was not a democracy, it was a dictatorship.”

Pérez said he allows vigorous debate and defers to committee chairs on policy.

“I think the caucus as a body has never been more positive in its interactions with each other,” he said. “We have a vigorous, vigorous debate and then we figure out how to go out and work together.”

Even some supporters said the brawl had diminished Pérez’s political power by making him seem petty and by inviting scrutiny of a major source of the speaker’s power: the use of taxpayer resources to reward and punish legislators.

“Some people might think he’s conducting a vendetta,” Sragow said.

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Pérez says he’s a “nonconfrontational person,” but some lawmakers find him passive-aggressive. One flare-up came last month with De Leon, a former rival for the speakership and coauthor of Pérez ‘s Vernon bill.

De Leon had second thoughts about the Vernon measure, saying he worried it might kill jobs. Staffers in Pérez’s office assured him they were working to address his concerns, according to Dan Reeves, the senator’s chief of staff. The bill was not changed to DeLeon’s satisfaction and, meanwhile, a lobbyist for the oil industry stopped by with a message: De Leon’s environmental bill was headed for the Assembly dustbin.

Another coauthor of the Vernon measure, Sen. Lou Correa (D-Santa Ana), received emails around the same time from Assembly staffers saying issues had been raised with one of his top-priority bills. Correa got the message: He put the legislation on hold.

Still, Pérez’s bill went down, 13 to 17. Pérez lashed out, saying in a statement that the defectors “have given Vernon a free pass to continue doing business as usual, and those senators will own the responsibility for any misdeeds that may occur in the future.”

Publicly, the senators dismissed the remarks. Privately, they said they were keeping close track of their bills in the Assembly.

michael.mishak@latimes.com

Los Angeles Times staff writers Patrick McGreevy and Shane Goldmacher contributed to this report.


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