Gay man takes helm of state Assembly

  • by Matthew S. Bajko
  • Wednesday February 24, 2010
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Already numbering in the hundreds, the rubber duck collection of openly gay state Assembly Speaker-elect John A. Perez (D-Los Angeles) is about to be flooded with more featherless friends. March 1 Perez will take over the gavel from outgoing Assembly Speaker Karen Bass (D-Los Angeles), becoming the first out person to lead the Legislature's lower body.

Even before Monday's ceremony, Perez, 40, has been receiving rubber ducks from well-wishers. At last count the plastic bath toys numbered more than 500. The collection grew by 14 at a recent reception in Oakland for one of the Capitol's most powerful lawmakers.

Handing Perez a basket of assorted rubber duckies, openly gay Oakland Planning Commissioner Michael Colbruno joked they were "13 Republican votes."

The reality is that Perez isn't exactly enamored with the silent quackers. His toy fowl menagerie started off because of a dirty joke he once told a friend, though ever the politician, Perez demurs from repeating the saucy quip for publication.

"It started as a practical joke with a friend. I had them in my office and people thought I collected them," said Perez, who once lived in San Francisco and attended the University of California, Berkeley but didn't graduate. "Now I get them as gifts. It has become this big deal."

His ascension to leader of the 80-member Assembly is also a big deal, as he will be one of the most powerful openly gay lawmakers serving in a state legislature. Perez's Democratic colleagues chose him to be speaker in December and the pick was finalized along party lines in January.

A month later Gordon D. Fox became Rhode Island's first black and openly gay House Speaker in its state Legislature. Like Fox's breaking of his state's glass ceiling for minority politicians, Perez is California's first out person of color elected to a state office.

The two men follow in the footsteps of Minnesota state Senator Allan Spear, who in 1994 was elected president of the Senate and became the highest ranking out politician in any state or federal legislative body, according to the 1999 book Trailblazers: Profiles of America's Gay and Lesbian Elected Officials by Ken Yeager, who is the current and first openly gay president of the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors.

Perez said his sexual orientation has not elicited any death threats, rather he has received "angry and questionable mail" about his being Latino. Fan mail has come in to him from LGBT people living throughout the world on his personal Facebook account.

"I wasn't expecting that they would find me on Facebook. My friends list has jumped from a hundred to several thousand," said Perez.

His emergence as the next speaker is even more remarkable by the fact he was not gunning for the post. Due to the state's term limits law he planned to seek an open Senate seat in the Los Angeles area this year rather than run for re-election to the Assembly, where he is restricted to serving four more years as opposed to having eight years in the Senate.

"The reality was I was going to run for the Senate and be gone," said Perez.

When the two straight Assemblymen seeking the speakership failed to garner the necessary votes to lock up the election, Perez's backers in the Assembly urged him to run. He also received a very public endorsement from Bass and soon found himself in the lead. His becoming speaker generated headlines around the globe.

Monday morning Perez has planned an ecumenical prayer service to be held at the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament in Sacramento prior to the swearing-in ceremony on the Assembly floor. Afterward the public has been invited to a reception in the Capitol's rotunda. A second swearing-in is planned in his district for March 12.

"Given the economic crisis I am not having the state pay for it. It is coming out of my campaign funds," said Perez.

Long-term plans

Due to his expected longevity as speaker �" more than four years �" expectations are high that Perez can emulate such powerful Sacramento lawmakers as former Senate President John Burton and Assembly Speaker Willie Brown, whose hold on the levers of power in the Capitol led to the term limits law.

"He potentially is the next John Burton. John is one of a kind and John Perez, I think, can fill those shoes that have been quite missing in the Capitol," said Sal Roselli, the openly gay president of the National Union of Healthcare Workers.

For fellow Assemblyman Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco), another pioneering gay politician, watching Perez be sworn-in as speaker will be an emotional experience.

"It is just something, as I said when he got the nomination, I have been living long enough to see something like this," said Ammiano. "You just feel an overwhelming sense of pride."

Ammiano also said he plans to have some fun with his GOP colleagues. The minority party ignored Assembly tradition by not voting for the majority party's choice for speaker and instead voted for a Republican member.

"He will kill me for saying this but I am actually thrilled. I am going to feel terrifically gratified and looking at the Republican caucus saying, 'Up yours. Live with it,'" said Ammiano.  

Perez already has shown he is not afraid to flex Democratic muscle against his Republican opponents. He has been steadfast in his opposition to seeing state Senator Abel Maldonado (R-Santa Maria), Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's pick to be lieutenant governor, given the vacant post.

At the February 11 Oakland fundraiser hosted by Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley), just hours after Perez was able to block Maldonado's nomination from passing out of the Assembly, he took aim at the GOP's unwillingness to find a bipartisan solution to the state's budget deficit and called for ending the required two-thirds vote needed to pass a budget.

"Unfortunately, some of my colleagues in the other party don't want to see government work. They want to see it crumble," Perez told the crowd. "It is why we need a simple majority to pass a budget."

The comment from Perez is just one example of why he didn't garner any Republican votes to be speaker, argues Charles Moran, a spokesman for the gay Log Cabin Republicans group.

"The unanimous vote against John Perez was more about partisan tensions and dysfunction in Sacramento more than anything personal," said Moran. "It was more an issue of partisan gridlock than it is opposition to him being a gay man as speaker. There is a lot of tension in the Capitol right now, even more so than is being printed about."

What impact, if any, Perez being speaker will have in convincing more Republicans to support LGBT legislation is questionable. Ammiano said he doesn't expect to see much change right away but expects over time there will be some impact.

"I don't think we will see any palatable change right away," said Ammiano. "I do think John is not going to go anywhere for a number of years. I think there is a good possibility it will have a positive effect on some of the party line homophobia we have seen in terms of the Republicans.

"I think eventually we will see a healthier attitude around gay issues," added Ammiano.

Moran said he is hoping Perez's tenure will force Democrats at the national level to be more assertive in pressing for LGBT rights.

"It is great to see any gays and lesbians who are elected officials gaining more visibility. It shows acceptance of diversity," said Moran. "We especially need that now, especially in the Democratic Party. They are having such a difficult time marshalling Democrats to support an equality agenda and vote for it as they promised to do.

"The elevation of a gay speaker of a state assembly hopefully will press more Democrats that they need to fulfill their promises to the community," added Moran.

If nothing else, Perez's becoming speaker has inspired those gay candidates running for Assembly seats this year. Michael Wilson, a gay man on the Vallejo City Council who is running for the 7th Assembly District seat, said it is "phenomenal" to have a high ranking out politician be a role model for the LGBT community.

"I think his election is a positive sign that gay people can be in positions where they can be role models and help inspire future leaders," said Wilson. "I didn't have as many of those people in those roles as I was growing up or when I was struggling with my sexuality."

Perez will be coming to San Francisco May 6 to help Ammiano raise money for his re-election campaign. The event will take place 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. at the Triple Crown bar, 1760 Market Street. Tickets cost $35.

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