As the Legislature returns this week, John Perez is poised to become the new Speaker of the Assembly, assuming the office with ambitious reform notions –- and few of the institutional political tools needed to achieve them.
If Willie Brown was the Assembly’s Ayatollah, Perez is inheriting a speakership whose powers more closely resemble those invested in the King of the Belgians. Despite the steep decline in influence of what once was the second most powerful office in California, Perez said in an interview that as Speaker he intends to tackle a host of reforms, from revamping the tax code (including a re-examination of Proposition 13) to seeking an escape from the straight jacket of term limits (and an out-of-control initiative system).
“This is not a small task,” Perez told Calbuzz. “The challenges are monumental. If we fail to engage fully, the problems will only be pushed onto future generations.”
Brown wielded extraordinary power during his generation-long speakership, the last undiluted by the impact of term limits. More transactional than transformative, however, Brown’s actions most often focused on doing deals, refereeing economic battles between big special interests and reaping massive amounts of campaign cash on behalf of Democrats in the bargain. By contrast, Perez now seeks to accomplish big, substantive policy changes, at a time when the Speaker’s power to reward, punish and instill fear has been sapped since Brown left town in 1996.
In an interview a few days before New Year’s, Perez said that although the intractable budget fight will necessarily be his top priority, he intends to take on and “struggle with these big structural issues.”
Refusing to take a position on major reform initiatives already being pushed by California Forward and the Bay Area Council, Perez suggested state lawmakers should pursue their own efforts to cut the Gordian knot of dead-end, deadlock politics that has dominated the Capitol in the post-Brown era: “The Legislature never intended to abdicate its responsibility” on such issues, he said.
“The most fundamental difference (between now and Brown’s tenure) is that there’s no ability for people to work with each other over time,” he added, acknowledging the difficulty of achieving political success amid the Capitol’s gridlock and every-member-for-him/herself environment. He insisted – despite the massive weight of evidence to the contrary – that he can “find Republicans who want to do what’s in the best interest of the state, not drive it off the cliff.”
A former union organizer from L.A., the 40-year old Perez as Speaker will become the highest-ranking, out-of-the-closet gay person in California history. As he completed his first Assembly term in December, he prevailed in a very public Democratic political brawl, overcoming a challenge from fellow Latino Assemblyman Kevin DeLeon, after Speaker Karen Bass abdicated amid constant rumors of an impending coup.
Mindful of lingering political sensitivities and the need to mend fences, Perez nervously objected when Calbuzz addressed him as “Mr. Speaker-elect” – “I’m not Speaker-elect yet” – a small but endearing display of modesty and humility that bodes well for his ability to massage the outsize egos of his constituency of 80 members. Perez strikes us as very intelligent if overly earnest, as he melds policy speak with New Age psychobabble that made us wonder if the disembodied aura of John Vasconcellos was lurking around the next corner of the Capitol.
“My job is to create a space where it’s safe for members to do their jobs and have an honest discussion of the impact” of policy decisions, he said. “The majority of members of both parties really care.”
Here’s a look at what he said on key issues:
Taxes: Perez bashed the Parsky Commission for coming up with a “political proposal” that would tilt California’s tax structure to favor rich people, instead of developing a “policy driven discussion” that presented a set of well-crafted options to put before elected decision makers. He said the Legislature should pursue its own rewrite of the tax code, a process in which “everything is on the table” – including Prop. 13.
Term limits: Perez pointed to term limits as the most fundamental factor underlying the dysfunction of Sacramento. With at least one initiative on term limits headed for the ballot, he said the current system encourages lawmakers to make policy choices without regard to their future impact and should be “eliminated any way we can do that.”
Reform proposals: Perez ducked questions about his views on both the constitutional convention initiative package backed by the Bay Area Council, and Cal Forward’s more incremental reform initiative. “Both are well-intentioned,” he said, “both need more public hearing and discussion.”
Working with Republicans: Perez called the temporary budget fix passed last June a “tremendous display of bipartisanship.” While favoring the repeal of the two-thirds budget vote requirement, he insisted “a large number” of GOP Assembly members are “not ideologues (and) really care about having an honest discussion of the impact” of budget cuts.
Gay marriage: The state’s first gay Speaker said that while public opinion is steadily if slowly shifting in favor of same sex marriage, an effort to pass a new initiative in 2010, just two years after the Prop. 8 ban on it, would be a serious tactical error, would likely lose and set back the cause for years.
Calbuzz Bottom Line: Like Senate leader Darrell Steinberg, Perez appears to be a very sharp guy. As with Steinberg, the key question will be whether he has the requisite ruthlessness and resourcefulness to make real change from a position of institutional weakness. In any case, we applaud him for trying and wish him all the luck in the world. He’ll need it.