New Assembly speaker saying all the right things

John Pérez is easy to like: pleasant, articulate and thoughtful, exuding calm and candor.

And self-confidence. Why not? The Los Angeles native was just chosen by fellow Democrats to be the next state Assembly speaker after only one year in elective office. Being likable doesn't make one a leader, but it's a start.

Pérez's elevation to the speakership from caucus chairman was a stunner. He had been planning to run for the state Senate with the blessing of two former speakers from Los Angeles, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa -- Pérez's cousin -- and Fabian Núñez. Assemblyman Kevin De León of Los Angeles had been slotted for speaker. For whatever reason, many Assembly Democrats became dissatisfied with De León -- he was pushing too hard, some said -- and recruited Pérez.

Early next year, Pérez will move to the modern speaker's ornate layout at the chamber's entrance, the best digs in the Capitol. Right now, he is saying all the right things and seems to mean them.

"Simplistically, people would like to put me in a box that says, 'Another Union Guy,' " says the career labor official (United Food and Commercial Workers and, before that, the California Labor Federation). "But while I'm proud of my union credentials, the whole idea in the private-sector labor movement is that there has to be a symbiotic relationship between the workers and the employers.

"There's a healthy tension ... but there's an absolute understanding that if employers don't grow their market shares and their profits, you're not doing a very good job as a labor leader because you're undermining your ability to grow your membership." So one of his "core missions" next year, Pérez says, is to generate business and job growth.

Another core mission, of course, is to balance the budget. It's again bleeding, with $21 billion in red ink projected over the next 18 months. Is it possible to balance the budget without raising taxes? "The best way is a mixed approach: (spending) cuts and targeted taxes and fees. That is very difficult when a two-thirds vote is required" to pass money bills.

But, he asserts, "we can't continue to kick the can down the road by just repackaging some of our debt. That makes no sense."

I ask: What's wrong with Sacramento? Why's it so dysfunctional?

"Democracy is messy generally," Pérez replies. "The other thing is the structure we have here. Term limits is the single biggest challenge. ... Partisanship is exacerbated by term limits. Many people worry about what they'll do next. So it magnifies their concern for being on the right side of core interest groups for their next race."

Another problem is initiatives, he says. "Look at our debt obligations that are the result of ballot-box budgeting!" One example he cites: a $980 million children's hospital bond approved by voters last year, costing the state $64 million annually for 30 years.

There's also the two-thirds vote hurdle. "What it does is create a minoritarian system of government that frustrates voters because they don't know who to hold accountable." And the price of obtaining a two-thirds majority, he notes, often is expensive pork.

But those are the cards that the next speaker has been dealt. He asked for the seat at the table. We'll find out next year whether he's up to the job, assuming anybody is.

Skelton is a Los Angeles Times columnist. E-mail him at