The first Latino elected leader of the California state Senate since Reginaldo Francisco Del Valle in 1883, Democrat Kevin de León took over for the job of Senate Pro Tempore from Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) on Wednesday.
De León, 47, grew up in the Logan Heights barrio of San Diego and was the first member of his family to graduate from high school. His mom, the single mother of three children, originally entered the country illegally and worked cleaning upscale homes for a living.
De León attended the University of California, Santa Barbara, for two years before bad grades cost him the financial aid that paid for his schooling. He took a job teaching English as a Second Language and U.S. Citizenship for the non-profit One-Stop Immigration and Education Center in Santa Barbara.
De León says it was his experience at One-Stop that led to his involvement in social causes and in 1994 he helped organize a huge march of 80,000 people in Los Angeles against Proposition 187, a ballot initiative meant to bar undocumented immigrants from using health care, public education and other social services. The law passed but was later challenged in federal court and found unconstitutional.
After his work at the center, de León became a political organizer at the California Teachers Association for five years, opposing school-voucher programs and advocating for schools in low-income neighborhoods, more school construction and health insurance for children. He also worked as a senior associate for the National Education Association in Washington, D.C.
De León returned to school and received a Bachelor of Arts degree in politics of education from Pitzer College at the Claremont Colleges in 2003.
He served as campaign manager for Fabian Nuñez, a childhood friend who was elected to the state Assembly in 2002. Nuñez, who went to high school and Pitzer with de León and worked with him at One-Stop, was elected speaker of the Assembly in 2004 and was instrumental in getting de León elected to public office.
He encouraged de León to run for the Assembly in 2006, where the underdog defeated the daughter of legendary labor leader Cesar Chavez. De León represented the 45th state Assembly District that included Hollywood, Thai Town, Little Armenia, Historic Filipinotown, Echo Park, Chinatown, El Sereno, Silver Lake, Atwater Village, Mount Washington, Montecito Heights, Highland Park, Glassell Park and East Los Angeles.
He served four years, and was assistant majority leader.
De León lost a bitter battle for the Assembly speakership to John Pérez in 2009, which resulted in him being booted from the powerful position as chairman of the Appropriations Committee and landed him a tiny office tucked away near the cafeteria.
The next year, he was elected to the state Senate in the 22nd District, representing Los Angeles, Alhambra, Maywood, San Marino, South Pasadena, Vernon and parts of unincorporated Los Angeles County.
De León has been instrumental in passing legislation concerning the environment, the working poor, immigration and public safety. He is opposed in November’s top-two election by fellow Democrat Peter Choi, a businessman, who has focused on de León’s link to a scandal involving Senator Ronald Calderon (D-Montebello).
Calderon was charged with accepting bribes in a wide-ranging FBI sting operation that threatens to involve other politicians. De León was named 56 times in an FBI affidavit, but has not been accused of any crimes. The FBI has officially said their interest in him is as a witness.
De León, who has never been married, has one daughter, a college sophomore at St. Mary's College in Moraga. He was sworn in to office Wednesday at an elaborate $50,000 celebration in Los Angeles at the Frank Gehry-designed Walt Disney Concert Hall. Most legislative swearing-in ceremonies are low-key affairs that don’t attract much attention.
De León’s gala inspired the Los Angeles Times to document the laundry list of donors who made the night special, including those whose legislative agendas have been intertwined with the new Senate Pro Tem. The newspaper also trotted out comments from conservative critics of De León who complained that he is too responsive to special interests.
The one-time political activist and community organizer said he was holding his “inauguration” at the plush home of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra because the venue “is close to the working families who . . . put me in office. It is also a visual representation of the innovative spirit that is California.”