Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 8 / 22 February 2018

Assembly expected to
pick gay man as speaker


John Perez
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The state's Democratic Caucus in the Assembly is expected to select an openly gay man as its speaker when the 50-member body meets today (Thursday, December 10). The selection of freshman Assemblyman John Perez (D-Los Angeles) would mark the first time an out person has led the Legislature's lower body in its 160-year history.

Supporters of Perez told the Bay Area Reporter Wednesday that he has enough votes to become the 68th Speaker. He would replace Assemblywoman Karen Bass (D-Los Angeles), who has publicly backed Perez as her replacement. Bass made history last year when she became the first African American woman to serve as speaker of a state Legislature.

"I believe John Perez has the votes for tomorrow," said Assemblywoman Fiona Ma (D-San Francisco), who as majority whip is responsible for counting up votes among the Democratic Caucus. "It is an historic time to have a gay speaker here in California. Many of us talk about equal rights and humans rights; it is great our Legislature is leading by example."

Equality California Executive Director Geoff Kors also sounded confident when asked this week about Perez's chances to eclipse his opponent for the leadership post, Assemblyman Kevin de Leon (D-Los Angeles). The statewide LGBT lobbyist group has been urging its supporters to contact their Assembly members and ask them to elect Perez speaker.

"I think, ultimately, Perez should be the next speaker. He has a majority of the Democratic Caucus lined up behind him," Kors told the B.A.R. "When that has happened in the past, the rest of the caucus has come together supporting the person with the most votes in the caucus. If that happens this time, he will be speaker."

Perez's ascension to the top leadership position in the country's largest lower body of a statehouse would have profound impacts, said Kors. And it comes a year after California voters passed a ban against same-sex marriage, which sent shockwaves across the country.

"It is important for people around the country to see an openly gay Latino man be speaker of the largest state Legislature in the country," said Kors. "His doing that will shatter stereotypes and open people's minds."

Contacted this week, Perez declined to speak to the B.A.R. about the leadership fight. He has refrained from talking publicly about the vote since the news first broke last week.

Perez, a cousin of Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, made history last year when he became the first out Latino and only the fourth gay man to win election to the statehouse. A labor organizer and leader prior to running for office, Perez is just one of two gay Assembly members.

His out colleague, Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco), told the B.A.R. he is "proud to stand with John" in the fight for the speakership.

"This is an important moment for the LGBT community when a gay man of color has the opportunity to be speaker," stated Ammiano. "It is particularly rewarding given the fact that our Republican colleagues walked out of the chamber during the Assembly's gay Pride celebration this year."

Due to the Democrats holding a majority of Assembly seats, they control who becomes speaker. The Republican members – who currently hold 28 seats – usually coalesce around a GOP lawmaker in the vote. Some LGBT activists have expressed concerns of seeing a repeat in California of what transpired in New York's Senate this year, when two Democrats ditched their party and voted with Republicans to secure leadership roles for themselves.

In a press release this week EQCA noted that the process for selecting the next speaker has differed this year and raised questions as for the reasoning. Normally the selection fight is not conducted in such a public matter, stated EQCA, and once it becomes clear a candidate has enough votes, their opponents drop their bids.

"A vote for speaker is then held, but this time the process has differed," stated EQCA in its release. "We hope that this isn't about sexual orientation, but it is always a concern when the rules seem to be applied differently to a member of our community."

With the entire Assembly up for re-election next year, any Democrats opposed to Perez becoming speaker could find themselves targeted by LGBT groups. Kors said he doubts de Leon's supporters would work with Republicans to block the vote for Perez.

"At this point we are optimistic that everyone will line up and the caucus will come out unified behind one candidate. We would have a very tough time endorsing any member who voted for a speaker who isn't supportive of LGBT rights."

Ma discounted rumors being spread that the Republicans would not work with a gay speaker. The two parties may differ when it comes to policy, but she doubted any GOP members would refuse to work with the leader of the Assembly due to their sexual orientation.

"I believe the Republicans will not have a problem working with John Perez," said Ma.

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