Politics & Policy

Kim Jong Un–Style Coronation for California Democrat

Kevin de León's lavish self-celebration trades Jerry Brown austerity for a new era of union-run government.

A state senator’s lavish self-celebration in a symphony hall this week marked a transitional moment in California’s Democratic stranglehold on power, as organized labor becomes more dominant and more brazen in its control of the party.

Kevin de León (D., Los Angeles), a community organizer and union man with no private-sector work history, was sworn in to a state-senate administrative position Wednesday at Walt Disney Concert Hall, an iconically ugly Frank Gehry building overlooking downtown Los Angeles. The unprecedented ceremony included mariachis, a Korean drum circle, a color guard, and $50,000 worth of gourmet hot dogs, fattoush, and boba tea for a guest list that included the mayor of L.A., California’s attorney general, and former homeland security secretary Janet Napolitano, according to a report by Seema Mehta and Patrick McGreevy of the Los Angeles Times.

The Times report goes into notable detail about concerns over the “inappropriate extravagance at a time when the state Senate is struggling to shake off the taint of corruption scandals and regain public trust.” (The reference to corruption is oblique, and in fairness, only two of the three state senators recently charged with or convicted of felonies — Rod Wright of Inglewood and Montebello’s Ron Calderon — are, like de León, L.A. County Democrats. The other, Leland Yee of San Francisco, is a Bay Area Democrat.)

Mehta and McGreevy point out that the event was paid for by California Latino Legislative Caucus Foundation, the political action arm of a legislative group that made national headlines in May for banning a Latino state legislator on the basis of his party affiliation. The racially and politically exclusive caucus’s foundation receives funding from corporations with major business before the state government, including AT&T, Chevron, Bayer, and Eisai, as well as the supermarket giant Safeway — which lobbied for the Golden State’s new ban on plastic grocery bags and worked with unions to divvy up proceeds from an accompanying bag fee.

In a statement, de León’s office said the 47-year-old politician hoped to grant “the opportunity for working families and the diverse constituents he represents to share in the historic moment of the first Latino in over a century to assume the leadership position in the California Senate.”

But de León’s highlighting of a racial angle in his swearing-in as senate president pro tempore masks the real significance of the event: a structural change in California’s one-party rule from a system in which unions would endorse political fellow travelers to one in which union members simply run for office directly.

According to a work history provided by de León’s office, the new state-senate leader’s only work in a productive capacity was as an instructor at One-Stop Immigration and Education Center in Santa Barbara. Following that he became an official at the National Education Association in Washington, D.C., before returning to California to organize for the California Teachers Association. He has never worked in any for-profit job.

“There is a growing sense that the California State Senate has risen above the law,” Jon Fleischman, principal of Fleischman Consulting Group and founder of FlashReport.org, California’s leading political news site, tells National Review Online. “Ten percent of their number have been charged with crimes; and yet opulence seems to be the order of the day, which is ironic coming from a senator who represents one of the least affluent districts in Los Angeles.”

Fleischman gives short shrift to de León’s argument that the event was intended as a special day for poor constituents. “The politically connected people who could afford to leave their jobs were able to attend,” he scoffs, noting that the Disney Hall extravaganza was a rebuke to the public frugality California’s top Democrat, Governor Jerry Brown, shows at his own events, including an inauguration that was described as “austere” by media. “Maybe it goes to a sense of who Kevin de León is that he’d want to have a regal coronation ceremony rather than a humble beginning.”

De León boasts of his work on legislation including the recently signed “Yes Means Yes” law, the bag ban, increased taxpayer spending on green pork and Hollywood, driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants, and repeal of key elements of the voter-approved Proposition 187.

De León also worked on a series of gun-rights restrictions that ended up getting vetoed by Brown, though not before De León was famously photographed celebrating the legislative passage of one such bill — a ban on so-called “bullet buttons” — with Yee, who was subsequently indicted on multiple felony charges of weapons trafficking and conspiracy with notorious Chinatown gangster and snitch Raymond “Shrimp Boy” Chow.

As is the case in most states, few people in California would even be able to name the leader of the majority in the state senate. The glaring disparity between de León’s meager position and the royal pomp of his celebration, hundreds of miles from the capital, was striking not just to the center-left Times but to more conservative media such as the San Diego Union-Tribune.

“The Senate in particular ought to be careful about imagery. In the past year, it has been plagued by scandals: allegations of staff nepotism, a senator’s drunken-driving-related arrest following photographed partying on a Capitol patio, the conviction of a senator on perjury charges, and the suspension of two other senators who face federal corruption charges,” Union-Tribune columnist Greenhut writes. “If the Senate ever needed to show a little humility, now would be the ideal time.”

— Tim Cavanaugh is news editor of National Review Online. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.


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