With term limits and political roadblocks ahead, what’s next for California Senate leader Kevin de León?
Kevin de León has started his third year as leader of the California state Senate facing threats to his left-leaning agenda from President Trump, and uncertainty over the future path of his political career. The Los Angeles Democrat says he is so focused on his job and playing defense against Washington that he has not decided what he will do when term limits force him from the Senate in 2018.
Supporters and observers say options open to him include running for governor, lieutenant governor or the U.S. Senate next year, or mayor of Los Angeles in four years. But pundits warn the fields for some races in the 2018 election are already solidifying in a way that could make a late entry by De León difficult.
De León, 50, says he has been kept up at night worrying about the Republican president’s efforts to undo policies put in place in California during his decade in the Legislature on issues including immigration, the environment and healthcare.
“There are very dark, looming clouds on the near horizon,” he said. “I have lost a lot of sleep thinking about what may happen to the people of California and to our progressive policies.”
De León received bad news just last week that the Republican Congress is looking to block federal approval of one of the signature proposals of his Senate career, the creation of a retirement program for low-income workers.
He also fears federal efforts to deport millions of immigrants in the country illegally, even after California has sought to provide them with driver’s licenses, college financial aid and attorneys to help them fight deportation orders.
In arguing against the president’s travel ban, De León told a Senate panel last week that the issue is personal for him.
“I can tell you, half of my family would be eligible for deportation under the executive order, because they got a false Social Security card, they got a false identification, they got a false driver’s license prior to us passing AB 60, they got a false green card,” De León said, adding that many people get false documents because “that’s what you need to survive, to work.”
The Senate leader has signaled his willingness to go to the mat on the issue by having the Legislature hire former U.S. Atty. Gen. Eric Holder to provide legal advice.
De León made history in 2014 when he was selected by his colleagues as the first Latino to lead the California Senate. His reign has been marked by significant action on climate change, immigration and gun control measures, as well as the securing of a two-thirds Democratic majority in the Senate in the November election.
But it’s unclear what De León’s post-Senate political career will look like.
Many close allies thought De León might have been appointed to a federal post if Democrat Hillary Clinton won the November election. Her loss shocked De León and other Democratic leaders, eliminating opportunities to serve in a new administration.
De León has stockpiled $1.6 million in a campaign committee for the 2018 race for lieutenant governor, but signs are pointing to him turning his attention to other offices.
Officially, De León says he hasn’t made a decision on the lieutenant governor’s race. But in recent months, he has privately given his supporters the go-ahead to endorse state Sen. Ed Hernandez (D-West Covina), a longtime De León ally, in the race. As a result, Hernandez has gathered more than 100 endorsements from prominent Democrats and others, including 17 members of the Senate, a majority of the caucus.
Those who have backed Hernandez in recent weeks include De León’s second, third and fourth in command in the Legislature, Senate Majority Leader Bill Monning, Democratic Caucus Chair Connie Leyva and Caucus Vice Chair Mike McGuire.
Hernandez has also won the endorsement of Sen. Ricardo Lara (D-Bell Gardens), who once worked on De León’s staff and is considered the closest member to the Senate leader. Perhaps the most telling Hernandez endorsement came from former Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez, a childhood friend and mentor of De León.
High-level Democrats who have endorsed Hernandez confirmed privately that De León has told them it is all right to do so because he is no longer actively pursuing the post.
De León is mum on details about his plans. He has not officially dropped out of the race and has not made a decision on his future, he said.
“I am exploring my options but I am focused on my present day job, which is being leader of the Senate,” he said.
Supporters and observers are debating how he would do as a candidate for various offices, including governor or U.S. Senate in 2018, or mayor of Los Angeles in four years. He also would also have an opportunity to enter the private sector to work on issues including climate change.
“It’s impossible to know whether Kevin de León ever intended to run for lieutenant governor or not, but it’s pretty clear that his time as Senate leader has convinced a lot of people that he should be aiming higher than that,” said Dan Schnur, a professor at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.
Between running for mayor, governor or U.S. Senate, “none of the three alternatives are easy paths,” Schnur said, adding that De León “would be naturally competitive for any one of the three.”
With a pack of high-profile candidates already forming for the governor’s contest, De León would probably have to decide soon if he wants to join in.
When asked if the job of governor holds any interest, De León said his attention was on the Senate.
“In a state like California, it’s an awesome position to do good for not just the people of California, but for the entire nation,” he said. “I have a lot of respect for the position of governor. I am focused on my job as [Senate] president.”
Pressed again whether he will run for the U.S. Senate or governor, De León said: “When the time comes, we are going to explore all options to see where we can continue to do work for the people of California.”
Some in the Capitol question whether he would be successful as a candidate for governor given that the already large field includes Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, state Treasurer John Chiang and former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, all of whom have fat campaign war chests.
“The better position for him is not governor,” said Jaime Regalado, a professor emeritus of political science at Cal State Los Angeles. “It’s going to be a very crowded field, and you are going to have Latinos splitting the field, and they are going to need every vote they can get.”
Regalado said running for the U.S. Senate would be the best option for De León, but that might not be available for another six years if popular incumbent Sen. Dianne Feinstein decides to run for reelection in 2018. She has hinted she will.
De León’s apparent ambivalence about running for lieutenant governor may be a mistake, some say, noting that Newsom has shown that the relatively powerless post can be an effective stepping stone to higher office.
One danger is that all of the available options become closed off to De León as other candidates cement their holds.
“I’m sure he is doing a hell of a lot of strategic thinking about this because the choices are few and far between for him,” Regalado said.
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