Kevin de Leon Hits the Ground Running

kevin_interview_1.jpgAs a first-time elected official, Assemblymember Kevin de Leon stepped into a big job this year. Named Assistant Majority Floor Leader at the start of his first term, Kevin supported the Assembly Democratic leadership team of Speaker Fabian Nunez and Majority Floor Leader Karen Bass in dealing with over 1,000 bills in his first term representing the 45th California Assembly District.

To recap his first year, we met with Assemblymember de Leon in his Highland Park office, in the Northeast Los Angeles community he represents. We arrived to find the assemblymember sitting with a constituent, fellow Northeast Democratic Club member David Brunk, who had dropped in to share concerns. Kevin listened attentively until all of David’s concerns had been aired. Then it was our turn.

Acknowledging that his lack of experience as an elected official presented unexpected challenges, de Leon made us feel more like we were chatting with an old friend than sitting with the Assistant Majority Floor Leader of the State of California. He explained that he used his inexperience to gain knowledge and make inroads in Sacramento he would not have been able to make had he come to the office with set expectations.

“Because I came to the Assembly without ever being an elected official, I had to ask a lot of questions. I couldn’t say, ‘Well, we did it this way on the city council or that way on the county commission,’” the San Diego native said last Friday as he prepared to fly to San Jose to see his 13-year-old daughter Lluvia. “That was a good thing because I didn’t come with a lot of preconceptions about how things should work in Sacramento.”

He also relied on the experience of more seasoned members. Majority Floor Leader Karen Bass and Chief Clerk E. Dotson Wilson, among many others, provided invaluable insight and guidance as de Leon poured himself into learning the finer points of parliamentary procedure, an essential tool in shepherding hundreds of bills through the Assembly.

Now in the thick of negotiations between the Assembly’s Health Committee and Governor Swartzeneggar as they try to salvage some kind of healthcare reform this year, it appears that Kevin is a quick study.

“There’s still a chance that we can do something with healthcare. It’s clear that employers should pay something toward the coverage, but how much? That’s what we have to figure out,” he says. de Leon supports a compromise healthcare bill now that would extend coverage to hundreds of thousands of poorer Californians, but is working for more comprehensive healthcare reform later—“not letting the perfect be the enemy of the good,” he has called it.

“I favor single-payer health coverage. If it were up to me, we’d have it today.” he says. “But the reality is that the Governor has said Senator Kuehl’s single-payer bill ‘is dead on arrival.’ He’ll veto it. Maybe that’s why she didn’t bring it to a vote.”

According to Kuehl’s website, her SB840 will be back next year after the single-payer team has done more development on the bill. Kuehl intends to “hold it up as the right standard for California” and contends that her bill is the “only real solution to the healthcare crisis facing California.”

Still puzzled that Senator Kuehl’s SB840 wasn’t put forward for a vote, de Leon also doesn’t think Democrats can get a veto-proof Assembly out of next year’s elections that would enable them to push past a Swartzeneggar veto. “It won’t happen,” he says. “We would need four seats. We’ll be lucky to get two.”

In fact, as part of his assistant majority floor leader role, de Leon is in charge of helping Democrats get elected in Chula Vista and Imperial—the most likely places for gains. “People think of California as a progressive, liberal state—and it is—but 48 of its 58 counties are Red, Republican.”

Part of de Leon’s job is to protect the interests of the Democrats. “When Republican assemblymembers become unyielding or dig in their heels, I assertively persuade them to act responsibly,” he says. “My job is to protect the Democratic majority. Can you imagine where we’d be with a Republican governor and a Republican Assembly?”

As an elected official from one of the most progressive assembly districts in California, de Leon has had to balance the desires of his constituency with what can realistically be achieved: “The Dream Act, which lets immigrant college students get scholarships and loans to get through college, and Gay Marriage—we Democrats support these ideas and might propose them,” he says. “But then the Republicans will use them as leverage to stir up their supporters, so it’s tricky.”

When asked to describe a typical day, de Leon says he’s usually up at 5:30 a.m., often has a breakfast meeting with staff at 7:30, begins his official day at 9:00 where he, the leadership and other legislators comb through legislation in an attempt to ascertain which bills will be challenged by the Republicans. His day typically ends at 6 or 7 p.m.

His first year in Sacramento had its surprises. “I’ve been disappointed at the public perception of politicians and the political process. Voters have been programmed to be cynical,” he says. “I’ve met a lot of officeholders and their staffs who work very, very hard. I don’t think people always realize how much sacrifice is involved.”

Particularly perplexing as well as infuriating has been the recent attacks on the Speaker, Fabian Nunez, in the Chicago Tribune-owned Los Angeles Times and in the blogosphere. “Fabian is the top legislative officer for the eighth largest economy in the world. He used campaign funds—not taxpayer money—to meet with leaders in Europe to help California’s economy and he’s taken to task for legitimate expenses,” de Leon points out with considerable heat. “The Governor travels the world in private helicopters and airplanes. Bob Hertzberg traveled the world when he was speaker. No one said a thing because they have their own resources, their own nonprofit organizations to pay the way.”

“Do we want only the wealthy to represent us?” he asks. “You have to wonder what motivates these attacks.” de Leon hopes his fellow Democrats will wake up to certain realities. “Sometimes we Democrats do a better job tearing down fellow Democrats than the Republicans,” he says. “Republicans had little to do with the attacks on Fabian. Sadly, this was done by Democrats. Then they’ll complain about the lack of progress in Sacramento and Washington.”

Kevin believes this would not happen with the Republican Party. “They’re disciplined. They won’t let attacks on other Republicans go very far. They close ranks,” de Leon says. Of the recent attacks on the Speaker, de Leon asks, “who loses? The working people who depend on Democrats to protect their interests.”

Heading out the door to catch his plane, de Leon is still optimistic. “I have several bills that have a good chance of passing,” he says. “My credit history bill (AB 588) would include the payment history of cable bills and utility bills in credit scores. This would put low-income working people in a better position to qualify for home loans.”

He’s also hopeful about his ammunition bill (AB 362), which would look at the feasibility of creating a system of licensing and registering handgun ammunition sales. Building on his career as a community organizer, Kevin hopes to use his position and newfound experience in the assembly to push forward his Urban Parks and Renawal Act (AB 31). AB 31 would award competitive grants statewide for the development of park and recreation opportunities to critically underserved communities. If this bill passes funds could be made available to neighborhoods and regional parks in the urban areas with the highest need.

de Leon’s 45th Assembly District includes East Hollywood, Echo Park, Elysian Valley, Mt. Washington, Lincoln Heights, and parts of Los Angeles. The son of a maid at San Diego’s Hotel Del Coronado, de Leon is the first in his family to graduate from high school, attended UC Santa Barbara, and graduated with honors from Pitzer College.

In addition to his role as the Assistant Majority leader, Assemblymember de Leon sits on the Committee on Arts, Entertainment, Sports, Tourism, and Internet Media; Governmental Organization; Health; Insurance, and the select committees on Alcohol & Drug Abuse and the Preservation of California’s Entertainment Industry.

Dick and Sharon–

Dick Price and Sharon Kyle are the editor and publisher of the LA Progressive. Together, as a husband and wife team, they publish several print and online newsletters on political and social justice issues. Dick and Sharon have a blended family of four children– Wade, Deva, Raheem, and Linnea — and three children-in-law — Dan, Kelli and Yoko

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