Yes We Can: Perez In California = Progress for the Nation

John Perez is not a household name. Yet. In the coming days, Perez may well make history, becoming the first openly gay speaker of any state legislature in the United States.  

This, from the California that narrowly voted to undo same sex marriage.  This from the same California that faces as much as $40 billion in deficits in 2010.  This from the same California that has a minority majority population, but where Latinos are fast becoming the majority.  This from the same California that used to provide the best education on the planet to all and now can not graduate the majority of most high school students in Los Angeles.

John Perez is  California.  He’s openly gay.  He’s Latino.  He’s a son of Los Angeles.  He’s an intellectual, a strategist, an environmentalist, a labor leader.  He’s an organizer, a skilled consensus-builder, a unifier and a stunningly disarming public speaker.  John is that rare elected official that we know will hold the public interest at heart.  

The only real question is why John would want the job?  If he becomes Speaker of the California State Assembly, he’ll face the worst problems this state has seen since the depression or even before. But he wants the job — and I can’t imagine a better leader in Sacramento to take it on. John has all of the qualities, and from what I hear, most of the support necessary to win. If the Democrats in the assembly unify behind John and avoid the “speaker wars” that have often marred the period since term limits passed, he will become the speaker.

I’ve known John for nearly six years.  We met in March 2003, when I was a relatively inexperienced but highly motivated supporter of Howard Dean’s candidacy for the White House.  I had, for years, been involved in politics, but never so deeply as Dean’s inspiring campaign to reverse the direction of our country.  

At the suggestion of a mutual friend, John met with me at  a restaurant at Universal City Walk right after one of the first Dean “Meetups” that would propel that campaign forward. He sat with me, very patiently explaining the who and the what of California labor and progressive politics.  He did not need to do that; he could easily have looked at this relative neophyte in state politics and said, “if this is what Dean has to offer, I’m out of here.”   But he did not.  And he was always there to help, after I became Chair of Dean’s presidential campaign in California and then went on to found the Courage Campaign.

California rarely has the opportunity to place the assembly in the hands of a speaker for more than a year or two.  John would follow Karen Bass, who has lived through one of the worst imaginable times in our history.  Karen is a true progressive, and she supports John.  So do I.  And while these leadership battles seem very arcane and insider, it’s time for all of us in this state who support progress to understand that we have a stake in who leads our assembly.

In the next few days, John Perez may well make history.  And, as progress marches on, he will eventually live in a state that allows him to marry the man he loves.

(Cross posted on Huffington Post)

Rick Jacobs is the Founder and Chair of the Courage Campaign.