The state Senate on Monday named as its next leader a Los Angeles Democrat who is best known for championing policies benefiting low-wage workers — even after his name surfaced in a federal corruption probe against a fellow state lawmaker.
By voice vote, the 40-member chamber elected Sen. Kevin de Leon to succeed Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg of Sacramento, who will step down Oct. 15, about seven weeks after this year's legislative session has ended.
De Leon, 47, will become just the second Latino leader of the Senate, and the first in more than 130 years.
Steinberg described de Leon as a lawmaker who is not afraid to lead. He cited his role last year in pushing a bill that gave immigrants in the country illegally a way to obtain driver's licenses, an attempt that succeeded after several years of failure.
"Kevin is smart. He is seasoned. He is hungry to get big things done," Steinberg told his colleagues before the vote.
His ties to the federal corruption investigation did not derail his ascension to one of the most powerful political positions in the state.
De Leon's name was mentioned dozens of times in an FBI affidavit that accused suspended Sen. Ron Calderon, D-Montebello, of accepting about $100,000 for himself and family members in exchange for promoting legislation to expand Hollywood tax credits and to protect the financial interests of a hospital that benefited from a provision of California's workers' compensation law.
De Leon accepted $5,000 in campaign contributions from an undercover agent, money he returned to the FBI as soon as he learned it came from an undercover agent.
He was subpoenaed by federal prosecutors but has a letter saying he is just a witness in the case and is not a target. No charges have been filed against de Leon. The U.S. attorney's office in Los Angeles declined to comment Monday and de Leon declined to discuss whether the investigation might impact him.
Calderon was one of three Senate Democrats suspended this year after being caught up in serious legal cases. Sen. Leland Yee of San Francisco also is facing federal corruption charges, and Sen. Rod Wright of Los Angeles is awaiting sentencing after being convicted of voter fraud and perjury.
Before being elected to the Assembly in 2006, de Leon worked as a community organizer and adviser to the powerful California Teachers Association. He began representing the 22nd Senate District covering Los Angeles and surrounding communities to the east in 2010. He will be termed out in 2018.
During his time in the Legislature, de Leon has focused on labor issues, education and programs that benefit lower-wage working families.
In 2012, he championed legislation to create the nation's first state-administered retirement savings program for private-sector workers. Critics of SB1234 said it has the potential to create a new liability for taxpayers.
De Leon, 47, used his family's experience of growing up as poor immigrants in the San Diego barrio of Logan Heights as motivation for providing retirement savings for more than 6 million lower income, private-sector workers whose employers do not offer retirement plans. His mother worked as a housekeeper. During his campaign for SB1234, he said his aunt still cleans houses in her 70s.
The first in his family to graduate from high school, de Leon graduated from Pitzer College in Claremont. He has a daughter who is now a college sophomore.
Sen. Ellen Corbett, D-San Leandro, said his personal story of being raised by a single mother empowers others and serves as a reminder that children of all backgrounds can succeed.
As Senate leader, he will have the power to push his agenda.
"What's amazing is that my story is not unique," de Leon said in his speech after the vote. "My story actually is the story of millions of other Californians."
De Leon lost the race for Assembly speaker in 2009 to John Perez, a fellow Los Angeles Democrat.
In 2012, de Leon worked with billionaire Tom Steyer during the successful campaign for Proposition 39, which closed a corporate tax loophole and used the revenue to fund energy-efficiency projects at schools in California's poorest communities.