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De León throws extravagant bash as Steinberg quietly leaves

De León throws extravagant bash as Steinberg quietly leaves
State Sen. Kevin de León of Los Angeles with daughter Lluvia Carrasco, point to friends during his inauguration as the 47th president pro tem of the California State Senate at the Walt Disney Concert Hall. (Gina Ferazzi, Los Angeles Times)

State Sen. Darrell Steinberg officially stepped off the stage last week. And Sen. Kevin de León stepped on it. Did he ever!

Drums, mariachis, a color guard, political VIPs. It was a full-throated "inauguration" at Walt Disney Concert Hall in downtown Los Angeles for De León as the new Senate leader.

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Corporate interests — oil, telecommunications, pharmaceuticals and others that lobby Sacramento — paid for the $50,000 bash through the Latino Legislative Caucus Foundation.

De León is the first Latino to lead the California Senate in 131 years. So the L.A. Democrat's ascension to the top of the legislative heap does carry historical significance. And this is an American Dream story, after all. He was raised in poverty by an immigrant San Diego house cleaner with a third-grade education.

But pardon the rock-throwing. That sort of self-congratulatory ostentation just doesn't seem to be the image our elected leaders should be painting for the public, especially this close to an election. Better to send a message of humility. Why rile up the politician haters when you're trying to regain a Democratic supermajority in the Senate?

Presidents and governors have inaugurations. Legislative leaders normally are satisfied with lower-profile swearing-in ceremonies, followed by modest parties attended by family, friends and colleagues. If they desire more, at least the money should come from their own pockets.

De León's gala, attended by nearly 2,000, is reminiscent of the extravaganzas Willie Brown used to throw as Assembly speaker three decades ago. Brown was a skilled legislative leader. But his flamboyance helped make him the poster politician for term limits.

The new Senate leader's fancy party was not reflective of his common-touch legislative record. He has sponsored legislation resulting in the first state-run retirement savings plan for low-income workers. He rescued a bill providing driver's licenses for people who immigrated here illegally. He co-sponsored a ballot measure closing a sales tax loophole for out-of-state corporations.

Actually, I had started out here to write about his predecessor's tenure as Senate leader.

Steinberg, a Sacramento Democrat, was sworn-in late in 2008 as the state budget was hemorrhaging barrels of red ink, an astounding $42-billion deficit.

He — and later Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez (D-Los Angeles) — labored with Govs. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jerry Brown to return the state to fiscal stability. They whacked billions from programs — mainly education and welfare — and also raised taxes.

Steinberg — more a policy wonk than a political tactician — was one of the better Senate president pro tems of recent decades. He was effective, upbeat, pleasant and ethical. The latter is ironic, given the coincidental scandals he presided over.

Three Democratic senators got into felony trouble. One was convicted of lying about where he lived. Two were indicted for far more serious alleged offenses: accepting bribes, racketeering and, in one case, gun-trafficking.

What's a leader to do? All Steinberg could have done was try to oust the trio from the Senate. Legislators could — and should — have given them the boot. Instead, they were suspended with pay. Steinberg said he believes in due process.

That's fine for determining whether a suspect should be free or caged. But just because someone hasn't been found guilty of being a scumbag doesn't necessarily mean he's qualified to serve in the Legislature.

Steinberg's legacy also is blemished by a narcotics-and-nepotism Senate staff scandal that festered under his inattentive nose. When he found out, Steinberg got rid of the offending employees.

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"Here's the bottom line," he told me. "The new pro tem is starting with a clean slate. I took immediate action when I discovered the problems."

Steinberg would much rather talk about the legislation he got enacted, which was significant: Lots of money for mental health treatment, incentives for developing downtown areas near transit hubs rather than continuing to sprawl, expanding vocational education, pre-school for poor kids, mental health and drug treatment for felons rather than building more prisons, restoring dental care for poor adults.

He also helped craft the $7.5-billion water bond measure on the November ballot.

"I did get better at this job the longer I did it," Steinberg said.

Both he and Pérez are termed out.

Pérez, the first openly gay speaker, stepped down in May and was replaced by Assemblywoman Toni Atkins (D-San Diego), the first lesbian speaker.

Pérez was a talented political leader who plotted the Democrats' capturing of a supermajority and, unlike Steinberg, was able to retain it.

He got some important things passed: The Obamacare insurance exchange that became known as Covered California, middle-class scholarships for university students, $600 million for veterans housing, restoring subsidized child care for 54,000 poor kids and the proposed rainy-day budget reserve that's on the November ballot.

Early in his tenure, however, Pérez squandered political capital by obsessively attempting to dissolve the scandal-plagued city of Vernon in his district.

"If I'd known then what I know now," Pérez told me, "I might have taken a different approach. It was the bloodiest fight I had."

Some of the blood was drawn by De León in the Senate, where the future leader helped protect Vernon. That wasn't the first time Pérez and De León had clashed. As an assemblyman, De León had challenged Pérez for the speakership.

When Pérez won, he recalled in a shot at De León, "I was sworn in, not 'inaugurated.' "

A new leadership era is beginning in the Legislature.

We've heard the fanfare for De León. Now we await the performance.

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