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The openly gay Latino whom Democrats in California’s Assembly recently selected to be the next speaker is, in the parlance of elected office, a "freshman." But John A. Perez has a depth of experience and adeptness for exercising power that belie his first-term status.

By: Hans Johnson, president of Progressive Victory. Johnson is based in Los Angeles and Washington and is a National Gay and Lesbian Task Force board member.

In the wake of the Dec. 10 vote to elevate him, Perez reiterated that the choice says little about him and a lot about his state. More than 30 years ago, the late Harvey Milk told California Democrats that electing gay people sends a can-do message to all minorities. The subtle allusion to his forerunner by Perez, the first openly gay legislator of color in California history, should not be lost on today’s progressives.

Nor should the remark’s reflection of Perez himself be overlooked. It is humble. It transcends personality to focus on the common good. And it conveys his roots and his pride in the diversity of his state.

Can Perez as speaker single-handedly fix the state’s budget mess, rooted in part in the 2/3 super-majority required to pass one? Can he overcome the legacies of both Prop. 13 in endangering the California Dream of high-quality public services and a reliable safety net and of Prop 8 in eliminating marriage equality? Of course not.

But Perez has the gift of being widely plugged in. His connection to progressive movements can help maintain a sense of engagement in campaigns and voting among their core supporters. Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) activists in California covet such accessible leadership. The community faces a three-year drive to build a strong majority for marriage equality in order to win a broad-based and costly campaign to repeal Prop 8 at the ballot box. Even before winning the June 2008 primary to represent the 46th Assembly District on Eastside Los Angeles, Perez amassed a long track record in appointed, voluntary and professional leadership. On top of his duties in labor (most prominently with UFCW), the hardworking 40-year-old served on HIV/AIDS, environmental and economic-development boards that gave him a rare understanding of the key players and policy goals of these constituencies. It also honed his capacity to hold a gavel and to hold colleagues accountable.

Such fluency is precious. And Perez puts his to use for the communities that he calls home, including LGBT people. On Nov. 6 in Sacramento, Perez accepted an award from the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. After expressing appreciation for the recognition, he noted the toll on Californians of job losses, budget cuts and the governor’s decisions. He then vowed to use his voice to protect the most vulnerable residents, including veterans, the elderly and the sick, and to help stop the alarming spread of HIV/AIDS among Latinos and African Americans.

The recession has increased hunger in very literal ways in California. But the era of term limits on elected office in the state and many others has fueled a hunger for legislative leaders who can speak the language of progressive movements and who have enough institutional memory, stature and tenure to advance laws that reflect their goals.

Perez has a team to help him. He has the toughness. And he has the time. When he takes the speaker’s gavel next year, Perez will have five years left in the six years allotted for Assembly members under California's current term-limits law.

Perez developed skills outside of elected service that suit him for wielding authority quickly and effectively upon joining the legislature. His rise is a reminder for progressives of the importance of leadership in community organizations, unions and appointed boards in municipal, regional, state and federal government that equip them for exercising legislative or executive power once elected.

Nonprofit advocacy and human service organizations are increasingly making leadership development and nonpartisan recruitment of candidates a key part of their missions. This is how progressive social movements build the pipeline of talented candidates from which winners and multi-issue champions like John A. Perez spring forth. For LGBT activists, in particular, Perez showcases the emergence of our power and the diversity of our movement, which looks like, and increasingly has a hand in leading, America.

Originally posted to National Gay and Lesbian Task Force on Mon Dec 14, 2009 at 12:00 PM PST.

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