Aug. 10--LOS ANGELES -- Ordering lunch at the counter of Los Angeles' century-old Philippe's restaurant, renowned for its French dip sandwiches and fresh-baked pies, Sen. Kevin de Leon pauses before making a sentimental choice for dessert.
He eschews a piece of one of those famous pies in favor of tapioca pudding.
"I always get this when I can," he says. "My mom used to work for a family that would send her home with tapioca pudding."
De Leon was raised by a Mexican-immigrant single mother who cleaned homes in upscale San Diego neighborhoods.
She and her three children lived on the hardscrabble streets of Logan Heights in the heart of the city.
The route out was not well traveled; Kevin was the first in his family to graduate from high school.
For de Leon, that diploma was the first step on a historic political journey.
This fall, at age 47, he will become the first Latino since the late 19th century to lead the California Senate as its president pro tem.
It has been a journey steered by an abundance of personal charm, dogged perseverance, driving ambition, street savvy, intellectual smarts, and a passion to do right by the memory of his mother.
To honor that memory, he says, is to honor the values of hard work and to recognize an essential truth that 21st century California will prosper only to the extent that it succeeds in creating opportunity for the poor and disadvantaged.
"Fighting for equity," he explains, "is compatible with fighting for all of California. It's not a charitable issue; it's an economic security issue: Give everybody a chance to succeed so they can be givers, rather than takers."
As a legislator, de Leon, a Democrat, has become known for taking on big issues. He steered legislation that substantially reformed Workers' Compensation, helping to broker a deal that satisfied representatives of both employers and workers.
And after he tried but failed in the Legislature to change a corporate tax law that penalized companies with large numbers of employees in California, de Leon took that fight to the ballot box. He teamed with venture capitalist Tom Steger to sponsor a successful initiative, Proposition 39.
In 2012, de Leon authored groundbreaking legislation that sets the stage for California to offer a first-in-the-nation retirement savings plan that will allow low-income workers whose employers offer no retirement plan to establish their own tax-deferred savings accounts through paycheck withholding.
De Leon, says outgoing Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, "is hungry to get big things done."
His path to political activism was borne of personal failure and embarrassment.
In his early 20s, de Leon either dropped out or flunked out of UC Santa Barbara. Recounting the story, he skips the details, saying only, "I screwed up."
Ashamed to go home, de Leon signed on with a nonprofit called One-Stop Immigration and Education Center, which in the wake of the 1986 Immigration Reform Act was expanding to help provide civics and English instruction to millions of immigrants who had become newly eligible to embark on a path to citizenship.
De Leon offered a few, sparsely attended classes in Isla Vista before opening a makeshift classroom in a Milpas Street apartment in downtown Santa Barbara -- an apartment, he says, in which he slept on the floor at night after teaching evening classes.
Among those who would occasionally speak to his class was young Assemblyman Jack O'Connell, who went on to serve 20 years in the Legislature and two terms as state Superintendent of Public Instruction.
"It was a small operation," O'Connell recalls. "He was impressive there -- very energetic, very polished, very smart. Had I known he was going to become president pro tem of the Senate, I might have gone a few more times."
That experience launched a career as a community organizer and immigrants-rights advocate, highlighted when de Leon became one of the principal organizers of a massive anti-Proposition 187 rally in Los Angeles in 1994, a rally that some estimate drew more than 100,000 protesters.
De Leon went on to attain a bachelor's degree from Pitzer College, and to work as a political organizer for the California Teachers Association and National Education Association, chiefly working on campaigns to fight efforts to establish school-voucher programs.
In 2004, he moved to a home in historic Downtown Los Angeles. Two years later, as an underdog, he ran for Assembly and overwhelmingly defeated Christine Chavez, granddaughter of United Farm Workers union co-founder Cesar Chavez.
His tenure in the Assembly was marked by a failed attempt to win the speakership, when he was outflanked -- and, in his view, double-crossed -- by Assemblyman John Perez. He not only won the job but also unceremoniously removed de Leon from his powerful position as chairman of the Appropriations Committee and banished him to a remote office next to the Capitol cafeteria.
The two remain bitter political adversaries.
De Leon acknowledges that the lessons from that failure helped him learn what was necessary to earn the support of his Senate colleagues to choose him as their leader. He listened to the issues they cared about it, and was helpful in advancing them.
In nominating him for the post, Sen. Fran Pavley, D-Agoura Hills, noted that de Leon has become a champion for the environmental issues about which she cares deeply. Republican Sen. Ted Gaines, of Rocklin, noted that de Leon made certain that rural schools in GOP districts received an equitable share of the energy-efficiency projects funded by Proposition 39.
"I would say he has grace," Gaines said, "which is something that's unusual for an elected official."
De Leon's 22nd Senate District is in the heart of Los Angeles, an area he calls "the most diverse geographic area in the entire world." It is home to Chinatown, Thai Town, Filipino Town, Little Armenia, Little Tokyo and Boyle Heights, a neighborhood with the highest concentration of Mexican natives anywhere outside of Mexico City.
In late July, three days before he was to accompany Gov. Jerry Brown on a trade mission to Mexico, de Leon agreed to have a reporter accompany him during a busy day in the district.
He had a breakfast meeting at the Homegirl Cafe. Afterward, he talked briefly with Father Greg Boyle, founder of Homeboy Industries, whose entrepreneurial approach to helping ex-gang members, paroled felons and recovering drug addicts has been lauded by national leaders ranging from former first lady Nancy Reagan to former President Bill Clinton. De Leon calls him "a saint."
He met with the consul general of Guatemala in Los Angeles, toured the Hollenbeck Police Station to receive a mostly positive briefing on crime trends, toured the construction site of the new Los Angeles Historic State Park, spoke at a small-business expo at Los Angeles City College sponsored by his office, and met with a delegation of Hollywood studio executives lobbying for an expansion of the state's film production tax credit.
De Leon conversed in Spanish with the consul general, chatted in Korean with women taking computer classes at the community college, and spoke in English and the language of capitalism at the small-business expo.
"We want to make sure small businesses have all the tools available," he said, then took note of the representatives from major banks. "Our goal is to help unleash the capital that they're hanging onto way too tightly."
One thing he did not do on this day was attend a midday speech by President Barack Obama in his district, on the campus of Los Angeles Trade-Technical College. Instead, de Leon visited with a handful of teenagers and young adults encamped in El Pueblo de Los Angeles plaza. They were fasting to bring attention to the plight of unaccompanied children who have been streaming to the U.S. border to escape crime-ridden conditions in Central America.
No disrespect to the president, de Leon said. "I'm just honored to be able to visit with these kids."
De Leon led them in prayer, and told them that their cause was righteous.
"Many people have different opinions on immigration reform," he told them. "Some folks don't want immigration reform. That's OK, that's their right. But children are off limits."
De Leon is passionate about these children's plight. He has visited the shelter at Naval Base Ventura County, Port Hueneme, and argued in support of efforts to reunite them with their families in the United States.
"It's such a powerful human story: a child embarking on a dangerous journey to be with their mother," he said en route to the plaza.
"I don't understand the thinking that this is in a vacuum," he said, referring to the drug-trafficking violence that has engulfed Central America. "When someone snorts cocaine in Roseville or Granite Bay, it's all interconnected."
The political backlash against these children in some quarters, he said, is driven by a factor over which they have no control.
"The issue no one is talking about is racism. If these kids looked like Swedes, it would be seen as a humanitarian crisis. There would be ribbons."
One senses that de Leon sees the image of his late mother in the faces of these children.
In electing de Leon as their leader in June, nearly every senator made reference to his humble beginnings.
"As I look at California today, you are the California Dream," said Sen. Lou Correa, D-Santa Ana. "You've shown what people can do if given the opportunity."
De Leon himself rejects the notion that his biographical story is unique in 21st century California.
"My story is the story of millions of Californians," he says. "It's not an original story."
(c)2014 Ventura County Star (Camarillo, Calif.)
Visit Ventura County Star (Camarillo, Calif.) at www.vcstar.com
Distributed by MCT Information Services
Original headline: De León rose out of the barrio to lead the California Senate
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OCTOBER 30, 2014
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