Unanimous Vote Ushers in New Speaker

Democrats pick LA lawmaker as new Assembly speaker

By DON THOMPSON
|  Thursday, Dec 10, 2009  |  Updated 5:15 PM PDT
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Unanimous Vote Ushers in New Speaker

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SACRAMENTO, CA - JANUARY 5: An exterior of the state capitol is shown on January 5, 2006 in Sacramento, California.

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Democrats settled an internal dispute Thursday by selecting a Los Angeles union organizer to be the next speaker of the California Assembly.
     
They unanimously backed Assemblyman John Perez, chairman of the Assembly Democratic Caucus.

Perez is a cousin of Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and was elected to the Assembly last year.

His nomination for the post, among the most powerful positions in state government, marked another milestone for the 80-member house.

If confirmed by the full Assembly in January, Perez will become the first openly gay Assembly speaker. The leader he will replace, Democrat Karen Bass of Los Angeles, was the first black woman to head either chamber of the Legislature.

Perez, 40, said his nomination broke another barrier for gays and lesbians, but he also emphasized that he should not be defined by his sexual orientation.

"My job is to represent the interest of all people of the state of California," he told reporters after winning the caucus vote at Stanford Mansion, a former governor's home near the state Capitol.

The nominee with the most Democratic support usually wins the post because Democrats hold a majority of seats in the Assembly.

He will take over the leadership post at a time of continuing uncertainty in the nation's most populous state, which has been battling steep revenue declines and budget cuts for several years.

He said he would not rule out tax hikes as Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and lawmakers face an estimated $21 billion deficit in the fiscal year that will begin next July.

"We're talking about taking California forward ... and on dealing with a very serious budget situation that we all know is facing the state," Perez said.

Perez was challenged in the speakership race by Democrat Kevin De Leon, also of Los Angeles.

De Leon conceded to Perez moments before the caucus vote, which included all 50 Democrats and independent Assemblyman Juan Arambula of Fresno, a former Democrat.

De Leon called Perez an experienced negotiator who could steer the party through tough budget negotiations in the coming year.

"I think what's important is that we unite the caucus," De Leon said. "We have enormous challenges before us."

Perez's ascension was partly orchestrated by Bass, who will be termed out of office next year. Members of the Assembly can serve a maximum of three, two-year terms.

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