John Perez said all the right things when he officially took over Monday as Assembly speaker. But it’s going to take more than banning legislators on the Assembly floor from taking text messages from lobbyists to fix California’s problems.
If you go by the speech Perez gave, he recognizes that Job One both for him and the Assembly is to get something, anything, done.
“When it is my turn to step down as Speaker and turn over the gavel, I intend to look back and say that we delivered,” the Los Angeles Democrat promised.
The good news for Perez is things have got to get better. For too long, the Assembly has been a hyper-partisan graveyard where budget legislation went to die.
But one of the reasons Assembly Democrats selected Perez as speaker is his reputation as someone who can both get along with his often-touchy colleagues and who’s willing to sit down and work out agreements.
Although no one is going to forget that Perez is a Democrat who made his political bones as a union guy, he stressed Monday that he wants to work with Republicans. He even reached across the aisle and promised to name Republicans to chair a pair of Assembly committees.
Perez talked about how, as a rookie legislator, he has worked with Republicans on both local and statewide issues, finding that “members of this house recognized there was a problem and we came together to support a solution, without regard to which side’s proposal it was.”
The state needs that spirit of bipartisan cooperation and common purpose if anything is going to be accomplished.
“We are absolutely capable of setting aside our differences and coming together to produce solutions for the people of California,” Perez said. He also promised that Republican ideas deserved to be “heard and considered,” something that Democrats haven’t been too willing to do in recent years.
Perez also made friends on both sides of the aisle when he promised that the governor and the legislative leaders won’t be writing the budget is closed-door “Big 5” sessions and then presenting it to legislators on a “take it or leave it” basis.
“Hearings will be held around the state so that everyday Californians have the opportunity to look us in the eye and tell us how our budget proposals will affect their lives,” Perez said.
It will be interesting to see how those promises of openness hold up when the budget negotiations get down to crunch time this summer and new deals are being cut almost hourly.
Not surprisingly, Perez also called for reforming the state’s fiscal process by allowing the state budget to be passed by a simple majority vote, rather than the two-thirds now required.
But there is now, has been and always will be zero Republican support for eliminating the two-thirds rule, which would strip the minority party of just about the only leverage they now hold in the budget talks. That leaves Perez’s call for change as little more than the pro forma statement every Democratic leader has to make, even though he knows that only a statewide vote ever will change the budget rule.
Many of the stories about Perez’s swearing in will focus on his place in history as the first openly gay speaker in the state’s history. And Perez didn’t back away from that recognition, bringing in the Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles to sing and recognizing “people like Elaine Noble, Harvey Milk and Sheila James Kuehl, who blazed a trail of pride and purpose for gay and lesbian Californians to serve our state.”
But that focus means more outside the Capitol building than inside the Legislature itself. That’s where Perez is going to be judged on his ability to convince Democrats and Republicans to bust through the partisan logjam that has stalled action on way too many important issues in recent years.
Perez said he would be proud to be able to say at the end of his term that “we simply worked together to do the people’s business.”
Now his job is to convince the other 79 Assembly members to embrace that vision.
John Wildermuth is a longtime writer on California politics.