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By Patrick McGreevy, Los Angeles Times

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Kevin de Leon thought his political career might be over.

After losing a bitter contest for the California Assembly speakership to John Perez in 2009, de Leon was stripped of his coveted Appropriations Committee chairmanship and moved to one of the dreariest offices in the Capitol.

“When they put you in one of the smallest offices, next to the cafeteria, where you can hear people ordering sandwiches, you have sunk low,” the Los Angeles Democrat said recently.

De Leon, 47, salted away the humiliation, saying that the experience made him wiser. With help of some powerful allies, including former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and billionaire Tom Steyer, de Leon not only revived his career, but on Monday reached a pinnacle in state politics.

De Leon was elected leader of the state Senate, becoming the first Latino to hold that post since 1883. It was quite an achievement for a kid from a San Diego barrio, the son of a single mother from Mexico who at one point was in the United States illegally and took a cross-town bus each day to wealthy, beach-side neighborhoods to clean homes.

“It’s an improbable journey not just within the context of the political roller coaster but also where I came from,” de Leon said.

His ascent reflected the deft political instincts, and good fortune, that have been apparent from his first foray into politics. De Leon won a Los Angeles Assembly seat in 2006 by beating a rival with a golden family name, Christine Chavez, the granddaughter of labor leader Cesar E. Chavez.

De Leon’s early connection to the district, the heart of the heavily Latino neighborhoods downtown and in nearby areas, was somewhat tenuous. He grew up in San Diego and had been hopscotching around the state. But the former union organizer for the California Teachers Association had support from the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor and one of his closest friends since childhood — Fabian Nunez, who was then the powerful Assembly speaker.

“He had all the heavy hitters,” recalled Chavez, who now works at the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Washington, D.C.

De Leon and Nunez — both sons of Mexican immigrants — were born 17 days apart and grew up in the same San Diego neighborhood of Logan Heights. They graduated from high school together and attended Pitzer College together.

De Leon and Nunez also were side by side when they came of age politically two decades ago.

Both worked at the One Stop Immigration Center in Los Angeles and organized against Proposition 187, the controversial 1994 ballot measure to deny many public services to immigrants who were in the country illegally. They led a march that drew 80,000 supporters of immigrant rights to downtown Los Angeles to protest the proposition. (California voters approved the measure, although the federal courts later declared it unconstitutional.)

Nunez went on to work for the labor federation while de Leon took jobs as an advocate for the National Education Association and California Teachers Association. When Nunez decided to run for the state Assembly in 2002, de Leon served as his campaign manager. In 2006, when Nunez was Assembly speaker, he encouraged de Leon to run for the Assembly.

By 2009, de Leon thought he had the votes sewn up to become speaker. But too many Assembly members found de Leon’s ambitious nature grating, eroding his support.

“I think that is the best thing that could have happened to him because he got some taste of humble pie and had an opportunity to rebuild himself and to re-engage with his own sense of purpose,” Nunez said. “I think that was a turning point in his political career.”

At the encouragement of Senate President Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento), de Leon revived his political career with a successful run for the state Senate in 2010, and quickly rose to become chairman of the powerful Appropriations Committee.

De Leon, who lives in Los Angeles’ Mount Washington neighborhood, also struck a political alliance with San Francisco billionaire environmental activist Thomas Steyer, founder of Farallon Capital Management. With Steyer contributing more than $21 million, the two co-chaired the 2012 campaign for Proposition 39, which closed a corporate tax loophole and provided hundreds of millions of dollars for environmental programs.

“Our friendship has continued to this day because we are both passionate about justice for all Californians, including environmental justice,” Steyer said.

Throughout his legislative career, de Leon has focused much of his efforts on bills affecting the environment, the working poor, immigration and public safety. He was instrumental in last year’s passage of a bill providing driver’s licenses to immigrants in the country illegally, and made national headlines in 2012 by proposing a first-of-its-kind, state-run retirement savings plan for low-income workers.

On Monday, the Senate elected de Leon as leader in a unanimous voice vote. Colleagues described de Leon as smart and fair. Several praised his devotion as a single father of a 20-year-old daughter, Lluvia, who is a student at St. Mary’s College in Moraga, Calif. De Leon has never been married.

But, some activists in de Leon’s district say that he is part of a Sacramento power structure that is too cozy with special interests.

Democrat Peter Choi, president of the Temple City Chamber of Commerce, is challenging de Leon in the November election. He called the incumbent a “professional politician.”

As an example, Choi cited de Leon’s opposition to a statewide ban on plastic grocery bags last year. A South Carolina bag maker, Hilex Poly, had employed the lobbying firm Mercury Public Affairs to oppose the ban. Nunez is a partner at Mercury.

De Leon said his concern about the bill, which was defeated, was that it would have cost jobs at a manufacturing plant in his district. This year, de Leon has negotiated support for a similar bill that would have the state provide $2 million to retool manufacturing plants and retrain workers.

Nunez and de Leon said there is a “firewall” that separates their relationship from their professional duties. Nunez said he has not lobbied de Leon on the plastic bag bill or any other legislation.

Photo via WikiCommons

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Reprinted with permission from Alternet

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