Portantino hopes to become Assembly speaker

The man from La Cañada has declared his candidacy for one of the most powerful positions in the state, that of speaker of the Assembly.

“I look on the job as a way to pursue my campaign issues,” Assemblyman Anthony Portantino told the Valley Sun. “I want to work for budget reform, education and health care.”

The opportunity is opening up because of the defeat of the term limits revision on last week’s ballot. Speaker Fabian Nuñez will be leaving the Legislature at the end of the current term.

His successor will need at least 25 votes to secure the support of the Democratic caucus, which will choose the chief presiding officer.

“I think I have a good chance,” Portantino said. “I’m from Southern California, and if I’m chosen I can serve four years.”

Term limits have led to a tradition of choosing a freshman for the job when it comes open. The legislature has also developed an informal tradition of selecting the speaker from Southern California, and the president pro tem of the state Senate from the north.

That position is also opening up with the impending forced retirement of Senator Don Perata, controversial leader of the upper house. The Senate majority caucus has selected a new leader in Sacramento’s Darrell Steinberg, who was chosen over Southern Californian Alex Padilla.

Both Perata and Nuñez will continue to run their respective houses through the end of the term, with new leaders getting trained in the meantime.

Nuñez, who publicly announced a hands off policy on selecting a successor, said the caucus will begin balloting March 11, and will continue the effort until a candidate lines up 25 votes.

Portantino said, “I intend to meet with my Assembly Democratic colleagues to make my case on how to move California forward. I believe my performance to date and my positive, consensus-building approach to tackling California’s challenges shows I have something to offer.”

Numerous names have been mention for the post of speaker, including Los Angeles Assembly members Mike Feuer and Kevin De Leon, San Gabriel Valley representatives Ed Hernandez and Chuck Calderon, and Hector De La Torre of South Gate. Also mentioned are majority leader Karen Bass and majority whip Fiona Ma.

There is likely to be strong pressure to select a Los Angeles representative. The last two speakers, Nuñez and Antonio Villaraigosa, have represented L.A. districts.

Nuñez was chosen over a bid from then-Glendale Assemblyman Dario Frommer, who was selected as majority leader, when Villaraigosa left the Assembly to join the Los Angeles City Council.

Portantino, a filmmaker, took a somewhat improbable path to the Assembly, as a Democratic member of an otherwise mostly Republican La Cañada Flintridge City Council in a Republican majority city.

He followed his friend and colleague Carol Liu, also a Democrat, into the Assembly. Portantino had an eventful first year, championing such issues as medical research with umbilical chord blood, fighting for the promotion rights for 1950’s era rock stars, and campaigning against excessive pay increases at the University of California.

His personal mantra is “Life is good” and he has prided himself on maintaining close ties in the district, which includes La Cañada, Pasadena, and portions of Arcadia and Monrovia.

Term limits has taken away some of the legendary power of past speakers like Jesse Unruh and Willie Brown, but the job under Nuñez has reclaimed some of its past clout. The speaker has developed a good working relationship with Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, to the point of co-sponsoring a health insurance compromise that died in the state Senate.

Nuñez, who emerged somewhat battered from the unsuccessful attempt to change the term limits law, declined to talk about future plans, except to disavow any interest in running for mayor of Los Angeles.

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