Battle brews over next Calif. assembly speaker

SACRAMENTO /*Assembly Speaker Karen Bass*/ is stepping down. The Democrat's term isn't up until the end of next year, but she wants to ensure a smooth transition for the next speaker, John Perez, who has informally secured 29 votes through commitment letters -- enough to win. The Los Angeles Democrat would be the first openly gay Speaker of California.

"He's got a tremendous amount of skill-set to make sure, with a steady hand, he governs the legislature and the state," said state Assemblyman Felipe Fuentes (D-Los Angeles).

But the influential Latino Legislative Caucus met Wednesday and voted to back state Assemblyman Kevin De Leon (D-Los Angeles) instead.

De Leon says what counts is the floor vote, including Republicans. This sets up an ugly battle for arguably the second most powerful job in the state.

"I think it's still alive and I'll leave it at that," said De Leon. Asked if he wanted the job, he replied, "I'd love to have the job, even in today's economic crisis."

It's unusual for the assembly to choose a speaker in December. Karen Bass's term isn't up until the end of next year. Such an early move may be an indication of how some Democrats view Bass as ineffective.

At times, Bass has negotiated important deals with Republicans and Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, but was unable to secure enough votes on the floor to pass them.

"There are members on how her leadership has been. Whether that is a determining factor or not, I think people are ready for a change," said state Assemblyman Tony Mendoza, vice-chairman, Latino Legislative Caucus.

But Speaker Bass insists she's not being forced out. She says this has been a very painful year for her, having to cut programs she cared about because of the budget crisis, and that she's ready to go.

Her supporters say she has been a good leader under the circumstances.

"Speaker Bass has been very effective, but everyone knew she was just going to be there for a year and a half," said democratic strategist Steve Maviglio. "So this behind the scenes jostling has been going on for almost a year. It's actually put a little tension on the caucus."

The full assembly is expected to vote for a new speaker next Thursday. Bass would not say when she would officially hand over the reins.

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