Marcos Bretón

Opinion: California Senate leader de León melds two worlds

California Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León, left, and Jose Mendoza prepare to drive away in a Toyota Prius on the west steps of the state Capitol in Sacramento in May.
California Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León, left, and Jose Mendoza prepare to drive away in a Toyota Prius on the west steps of the state Capitol in Sacramento in May.

Kevin de León, the first Latino leader of California’s Senate in more than a century, remembers riding the bus with his mother, Carmen, a Mexican immigrant, as she traveled to her menial job on the fringes of American society.

“My mother used to joke that she had a certificate for cleaning the (excrement) of rich white people,” de León says of the single mother, now deceased, who supported the Senate president pro tem and his siblings by caring for elderly retirees in the affluent San Diego enclaves of La Jolla and Coronado.

On those rides de León witnessed scenes that helped forge his political consciousness. He saw grown men – many of them hard workers – pulled off the bus by federal agents when they failed to produce the proper documents. He remembers the sobs of wives and children as soon-to-be-deported heads of families were led away to uncertain futures.

“It filled me full of shame,” he said recently, sitting in his ornate office at the Capitol. “It filled me full of humiliation.”

Those feelings are still with de León today. They inform every move he makes with both his victories – including the recent restoration of state services to humble Californians like the one he used to be – and his setbacks. The indignity he felt, and the impact it had on his ideology and self-esteem, remain, and it can make him seem distant and hostile to a Capitol press corps that he considers hostile to him because of who he is, because of the color of his skin, and because of his ethnic background.

When de León became the pro tem in October, many thought he would be a short-timer, with some wondering if he would become entangled in the legal quagmire of his former Latino colleague, Sen. Ronald Calderon. Nine months later, de León is instead on the cusp of pushing through a landmark climate control bill. He’s headed to Paris in December, as a notable delegate in a global gathering of climate-control experts and advocates.

At 48, de León has become the highest profile Latino leader in California, a state where Latinos are the largest ethnic group, though their political power is limited by low voter turnout. He has accomplished this – a remarkable personal achievement considering his background – mostly through will, instinct and drive rather than political polish.

In Sacramento, de León has been viewed warily. When he succeeded the polished and influential Darrell Steinberg, a leader who could answer reporters’ questions off the cuff, de León was tagged as lesser successor. He was seen as more hustler than statesman. His coiffed hair and boyish looks gave him a preening veneer. Some around the Capitol predicted he soon would be deposed by Sen. Bob Hertzberg or someone else.

De León seems more comfortable operating with a script in front of him. The more the Capitol press corps pushes him, the more he lets surrogates speak on his behalf, as he did during a temporary uproar caused when it was discovered that de León had authorized an on-call service in which state-paid Senate staffers would drive legislators who had too much to drink. De León later announced he had rescinded the program, but not until it had become a big news story. The press wanted to hear from him, but he deferred to handlers. It wasn’t a good look.

De León appears more in his element when he hops a Southwest flight and heads home to his district in Los Angeles, where it is not an exaggeration to say he is beloved. His district office in the working-class Echo Park neighborhood is a bustling, open-door space where everyday people wait on his couch to speak with him. De León treats the folks he represents with the same respect as he offers the mayor of Los Angeles and the ambassador from Australia, both recent visitors.

At a late-May open house in at his Echo Park office, he charmed a large crowd – constituents from the most diverse Senate district in California – employing perfect Spanish diction in his oration but never patronizing his audience.

He talked to them about his background. He told them they mattered. He went back and forth between English and Spanish because his district is also home to Chinatown, Koreatown, Little Tokyo as well as the largest concentration of Mexicans, Salvadorans and Guatemalans in Los Angeles. Like an old-style pol, de León stood and heard from every last guest vying for his attention – from disabled advocates in motorized wheelchairs to anti-vaccination advocates who became heated enough for de León’s security to hover intently.

With a marimba band and folkloric dancers, it was like a scene from a family cookout. It was chaotic, intimate and a world apart from the highly controlled image de León puts forth in Sacramento. It was a good look.

In many ways, de León is more articulate in Spanish than he is in English. Speaking English, he will still occasionally say “voricious” when he means voracious or “exasperated” when he means exacerbated. Speaking Spanish, he doesn’t stammer or mangle words. He speaks like a native, which he is in his heart. It’s a personal orientation that has lifted him up and occasionally let him down, but it’s who he is.

“I grew up in San Diego and Tijuana, a fronterizo,” de León said, using a Spanish word to describe someone who grew up on the border. “In my book, a fronterizo is someone who views the world through a different lens, a binational lens, a bicultural lens, a bilingual lens.”

De León’s life has been about melding his two worlds. He probably wouldn’t describe himself as a natural born leader. “If you would have met me in elementary school or in middle school, I think you would have walked away thinking there was nothing spectacular about me,” he said. “You know how some people say, ‘Oh, that young man or woman is really going to do something in life. That young person is going to president one day.’ If you had met me you would have said, ‘Oh, nice kid. Nice guy.’ But that’s it.”

He didn’t participate in student government, wasn’t a prom king, did little to stand out. He got into UC Santa Barbara on an affirmative action program, but poor grades cost him his scholarship (he would later earn a degree from Pitzer College). Facing the humiliation of going home a failure, he decided to start a business. He taught English and civics courses to immigrants seeking permanent residency in the U.S. To impress his students, he wore an oversized charcoal gray suit with pinstripes that his cousin had found in a used car. The best part about the dark suit he wore daily: It concealed food stains.

An organizer was born, one who found he had a way of communicating with economically disadvantaged people. But politics were still a world away, until de León witnessed a Latino politician helping to craft laws that harmed the people he cared about.

Louis Caldera, also a son of Mexican immigrants – and a former California assemblyman and secretary of the Army under President Bill Clinton – supported a 1993 Assembly bill that required proof of legal residency to obtain a California driver’s license. A year later, California voters passed Proposition 187, which sought to bar the undocumented from social services.

De León responded by helping to plan massive demonstrations against Proposition 187 in Los Angeles. He came of age during this time, when the word Mexican was still used like a slur. A decade later, de León arrived at the Capitol – as an assemblyman – with his dukes up.

If de León has seemed defensive since then, it’s because he has been. The learning curve of his ascendancy to power has been about accepting that leadership comes with extra scrutiny.

It’s been hit and miss. He was slammed for using $50,000 in special interest contributions to hold his swearing-in ceremony as Senate leader at the Walt Disney Concert Hall. It was seen as overly extravagant at a time California was still digging out of recession.

“If a white politician hosts an event in the Walt Disney Concert Hall it’s fine, nobody says anything,” de León said in a La Opinion, the Spanish language newspaper based in Los Angeles. “But if a Latino politician holds an event there, then it’s very bad, you have to do it in the neighborhood.”

He said the same to me over dinner in February, at one of the hole-in-the-wall restaurants in Sacramento that he favors over fancier establishments that regularly host politicians. De León was seething back then at what he viewed as a double standard. What the press missed, he said, were the gardeners, housekeepers, laborers and schoolchildren who were treated to an event at a venue they normally wouldn’t frequent. Food trucks provided the catering; an all-female mariachi band performed the national anthem.

To de León, the event was a melding of his past life and his present life – of his bicultural, bilingual view.

It’s a view that de León has stayed true to with his policy agenda. As an answer to Caldera’s support of anti-immigrant legislation on driver licenses, de León was instrumental in passing a law that granted driver’s licenses to the undocumented. In addition, he has been instrumental in restoring the services lost in the Proposition 187 days when he was moved to politics.

But he also has been the leader in pushing Senate bills on climate change that would be historic for California. If de León gets his way, California will be on the move to reduce petroleum use by 50 percent, generate half of its electricity from renewable sources, and double efficiency in existing buildings all by 2030. De Leon also wants the state public employee investment fund to cut financial ties with coal companies. And he supports Sen. Fran Pavley’s SB 32 to set a target of reducing climate pollution to 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050.

“It’s important on multiple fronts that the leader taking on climate change is Latino, a person of color, from the east side of Los Angeles,” said Sen. Richardo Lara, de León’s closest ally at the Capitol. “The environmental movement needs diversity. These are issues that also resonate with the working-class people he represents.”

De León’s work on climate change hints at a legislative future for a leader moving beyond the narrow goals that drove him into politics in the first place.

“Some people might view me as an insider but in reality I’m not,” de León said. “I perceive myself as a disruptor of the status quo. I want to use my position as a vehicle to move an agenda that will bring equitable change to people that will make us all prosperous. ... It’s who I am. It’s in my DNA.”