It's been a rough summer for Assembly Speaker John Pérez. His top legislative priority, a bill to eliminate the city of Vernon, died in the state Senate. He got into an ugly public dispute with Anthony Portantino, a backbencher from his own party, over access to the spending records of the 80 politicians elected to the state Assembly — and misplayed it to the point where he risks losing his own clout.
When Portantino's hometown paper, the Pasadena Star-News, ran an online poll asking if Pérez should resign, 83 percent said yes. It's not going to come to that, unless Pérez continues to make unforced errors. But in brushing up against the limits of his own power, he has damaged his image, maybe for good.
Anthony Portantino is nobody's idea of a firebrand. He's a jowly and genial fellow who often wears a shirt that says “Life Is Good.” When he was on the La Cañada-Flintridge City Council, he was clearly the guy with ambitions. He had a tendency to give lofty speeches at meetings on sewers and zoning issues.
After being elected to the Assembly, he ran twice for the powerful job of California Speaker, an honor bestowed by the 52 Democrats and 28 Republican members of the Assembly, but wasn't connected enough to be a top-tier candidate. The second time around, he eventually withdrew and backed Pérez. He hoped he would be rewarded with the chairmanship of the powerful Rules Committee, but that didn't happen.
Portantino and Pérez were never friends, but they were on cordial terms. Portantino began to irk the speaker during last year's budget process, when he objected to Pérez's move to suspend Proposition 98's guarantee for school funding.
In December, Portantino got a call from Pérez.
According to Portantino, the speaker accused him of being “too outspoken.”
Pérez took away his chairmanship of the Revenue and Taxation Committee and removed him from a committee responsible for Santa Anita racetrack, which is in Portantino's district.
“I hope this will repair our relationship,” Pérez said, according to Portantino.
It was a routine woodshedding. The Assembly leadership has a long and proud tradition of disciplining legislators who get out of line. Speaker Fabian Núñez was known for putting members in the “Doghouse” — a tiny office with barely enough room to turn around.
The most famous example may be the “Gang of Five” uprising against Speaker Willie Brown. In 1988, five Assembly members came to Brown and strongly suggested he step down. In his book, Basic Brown, the former speaker recounts how he stripped the legislators of their titles and evicted them from their offices — before the meeting was over.
Usually it doesn't take that much for legislators to get the message. But it didn't work on Portantino. He dug in his heels, criticizing his party on redevelopment and prison overpopulation policies and voting against the state budget. That was too much.
“The caucus leadership said if you don't vote for everything, there will be a consequence,” Portantino says. “That's a departure from administrations past. [Pérez] wants 52 votes on every bill, because they want to say they're the most powerful house and he's the most powerful leader.”
The budget included deep cuts to social welfare programs. By being the only Democrat to vote “no,” Portantino could claim to have stood up for children and the elderly when his colleagues wouldn't. That would be helpful in a campaign for Congress, which Portantino is considering. To supporters of the speaker, however, it looked like grandstanding.
“Every one of those Democrats had to cast votes that they knew would hurt constituencies within the Democratic Party,” says Eric Bauman, chairman of the L.A. Democratic Party — and a consultant to Pérez. “For any one member to infer that they are the only ones to be concerned about the elderly, the poor or our students, and to infer every other Democrat who voted for that budget was heartless and uncaring, on the face of it is foolish.”
Portantino needed to be sent a stronger message. A few days after the budget vote, he got a letter from Rules Committee chairwoman Nancy Skinner advising him he was $67,000 over his personal office and staffing budget. As a result, the committee controlled by Pérez, which holds the purse strings on individual office spending by legislators, was cutting off his access to supplies, magazine subscriptions, new furniture and the Assembly mailroom. The committee prohibited staff travel and announced that Portantino's staff would be furloughed.
That was a stupid play.
Portantino knew he was living within his means. He had declined the Assembly car allowance. Three times he had been offered new carpet, and had refused. Besides, whatever his budget was, Pérez's had to be much greater. Was that really the fight Pérez wanted to pick?
So Portantino turned around and asked for the 79 other legislators' office budgets in the Assembly — knowing full well that Pérez would refuse. When he did, the L.A. Times and the Sacramento Bee sued Pérez for access to what is almost certainly public data. Anthony Portantino was winning.
Suddenly, Portantino was the tribune of transparency, the darling of the editorial boards. Pérez's underlings then got into an extended verbal battle with Portantino — comparing him to Donald Trump — which only diminished Pérez further.
Democratic strategist and party insider Steve Maviglio, who worked for Núñez, says his boss never got into such public squabbles.
“We'd say it was 'an internal caucus matter' and leave it at that,” Maviglio says.
Pérez was forced into a corner. He had to do something. So on a Friday afternoon, the speaker released documents that purported to show Portantino outspending the rest of the Assembly by a wide margin.
That simply wasn't plausible, and no one bought it. Portantino trotted out a group of Stanford kids who had crunched the numbers and blown a big hole in Pérez's accounting.
The speaker's surrogates responded by attacking the kids. Maviglio wrote a blog post accusing the Stanford kids of being right-wing, Tea Party, climate-change deniers.
“If you don't like the numbers, what do you do?” Portantino asks. “You attack the messenger.”
The speaker's allies are looking forward to the end of Portantino's run of good press.
“I don't think this helps the institution at all,” Maviglio says. “There's a balance between making a point and destruction.”
The risk to the Assembly leaders is that, now facing the public document disclosure lawsuits by the Times and the Bee, they will have to disgorge all sorts of gritty spending details, which would be unprecedented. That could reveal how leaders use the purse strings to make deals, hampering dealmaking and thus weakening the speakership.
Portantino predicts: “They're going to see their $146 million slush fund exposed.”
It could be a valuable experience for Pérez, if he chooses to learn from it.
“The speaker has faced some difficult issues,” Núñez says. “At least he's got a couple more years, and he can come out of this strong.”
But it looks as if Pérez is still playing the kind of power politics that got him in trouble.
Sen. Kevin De Leon was largely responsible for killing, in the Senate, Pérez's hard-fought bill to eliminate the city of Vernon. Last week, five of De Leon's bills mysteriously stalled in the Assembly, controlled by Pérez. Pérez's staff denied it was payback.
But nobody believed that.