Within hours of Republican Donald Trump clinching the presidency, Senate leader Kevin de León had established himself as a commander of the resistance.
In a joint statement with the Assembly speaker, de León vowed that California would remain a refuge of justice and opportunity for everyone – “regardless of how you look, where you live, what language you speak or who you love.”
Returning from a United Nations’ climate change conference in Morocco, de León said he heard from other nations seeking assurances that California would continue to advance its progressive environmental policies. Later, the Los Angeles Democrat told an International Migrants Day rally that “we are all Americans.”
Despite his rapidly rising profile, de León has been circumspect about his political aspirations, even as other top-tier prospects for higher offices sketch out their paths. “He’s one of the ones people are watching,” said Laphonza Butler, president of the Service Employees International Union California.
De León’s allies stress he has not made a determination. They say it’s not in his nature to run for something he isn’t passionate about simply to remain in office.
“He’s not going to expend an ounce of energy thinking about his next job if it takes away from his current job,” said John Shallman, his longtime strategist. “If there is some mythical decision window that’s closing he is supposed to be jumping through, he’s not worried about it.”
Many close to de León believe he has what it takes to compete in the crowded field to succeed Gov. Jerry Brown in 2018, and want him to run.
While some see him better suited at the time for another down-ticket statewide office, others envision him challenging for U.S. Senate, running on his legislative achievements should Dianne Feinstein decline to pursue a fifth term in the 2018 election, at the age of 85.
Other confidantes say he could return home and compete for a seat on the Los Angeles City Council, a natural launchpad to the mayor’s office. Democrat Antonio Villaraigosa, a candidate for governor in 2018, held the 14th District from 2003-05 before serving two terms as L.A. mayor.
De León is being scrupulous about his decision. In recent months, he stayed out of the special election to succeed Rep. Xavier Becerra, Brown’s pick to replace Sen.-elect Kamala Harris as attorney general. And while de León maintains a committee for lieutenant governor, which had $1.2 million as of June 30, he has expressed no interest in competing for the job, which offers little in the way of built-in responsibilities.
Meantime, de León’s colleague, Sen. Ed Hernandez, has been working to clear the field as part of his early campaigning for lieutenant governor, raising $1.3 million and compiling a growing list of endorsements from the likes of L.A. County Supervisor Hilda Solis, Controller Betty Yee, Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon and 15 senators. Maclen Zilber, a spokesman for Hernandez, said “he’s been working as hard as he can – and taking nothing for granted.”
Trump’s victory dramatically complicates the picture for the next crop of California political leaders like de León. A Hillary Clinton win would have created scores of plum positions. Trump’s success has implications for Feinstein, who traded her position as the top Democrat on the Intelligence Committee for the same leading post on the Judiciary Committee, where she will scrutinize Trump’s nominees to the U.S. Supreme Court.
De León’s future may also be linked to Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, a rising Democrat who shares a consultant with Feinstein and could have insight into the timing of her Senate decision.
Already, Garcetti’s mayoral supporters have been buzzing about conversations in which he left open the prospect of jumping into the governor’s race, based on his popularity in L.A. One sign of his high approval with voters: Proponents of Measure M, the half-cent sales tax for transportation projects approved in November, featured Garcetti in their TV ads.
Among those already competing for governor are Villaraigosa, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom and Treasurer John Chiang, all Democrats. Former state schools chief Delaine Eastin has said she intends to run. Others in the conversation include wealthy environmental activist Tom Steyer, another Democrat, and San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, a Republican who has yet to express interest. Secretary of State Alex Padilla is a potential U.S. Senate prospect.
Similar to de León, Garcetti insists he’s focused on the task at hand. He is planning a Jan. 8 fundraiser with Vice President Joe Biden in Beverly Hills to benefit his reelection. With the mayoral primary set for March 7, he is expected to cruise to a second term. Then the questions will begin in earnest.
Such queries began some time ago for de León. He’s exceeded expectations throughout his political career. In 2006, de León won his Assembly seat over Christine Chavez, the granddaughter of labor icon Cesar Chavez. After losing his apparent grip to become the Assembly speaker, de León stormed back and won the Senate pro tem post, forging some strong ties with powerful groups and individuals like Steyer over their shared policy commitments.
Those in De León’s circle have indicated they don’t expect him to come to a resolution for at least a couple months. He knows once he does, and makes it public, it will set off a scramble for his leadership job. For now, with Trump set to take office and California girding for a fight, he intends to relish the position.
“Kevin really wants to continue having a positive impact on the state of California,” said David Quintana, a lobbyist in Sacramento.
“To do that, there are a lot of big policy things he wants to do,” he added. “And that is what is at the top of his mind right now.”