California Democrats elect new Senate leader from progressive wing

SACRAMENTO Calif. Mon Jun 16, 2014 8:17pm EDT

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SACRAMENTO Calif. (Reuters) - California Democratic lawmakers elected a new State Senate leader on Monday, completing a shift to a more liberal leadership that began with the ascension of Toni Atkins as State Assembly speaker last month.

Senator Kevin de Leon, who represents part of Los Angeles, will take the helm next autumn as Democrats vie to hold on to their unprecedented majorities in both legislative houses even as Republicans mount efforts to woo voters in key races.

"We must continue to build on our economic recovery by doing everything we can to ensure the California promise is available to every Californian," said de Leon, the first Latino to lead the Senate in 130 years. "We are one state and we are all tied together."

A former teachers' union activist, de Leon pledged to strengthen public education in the state and to work with political independents as well as Republicans.

Democrats in California control all statewide offices and have a two-thirds' majority in the Assembly, giving them power to change tax laws.

They are short of two-thirds in the Senate, where three members were forced to take leaves of absence in a series of scandals. In one case, involving corruption charges against Los Angeles Democrat Ron Calderon, the FBI said de Leon was a potential witness.

Under Democratic Governor Jerry Brown, a fiscal moderate, the Legislature has hewed a relatively centrist course. The current Senate leader, Darrell Steinberg, who is leaving the chamber at the end of the year, pushed back against Brown in such areas as prison reform and early childhood education, but supported him in the end, as did former Assembly Speaker John Perez.

But with the ascension of de Leon and Atkins, the Legislature may push back harder against Brown, who is running for re-election in November.

"Steinberg is more of a business guy, and de Leon is more of an open progressive," said political analyst David Mark, editor of the website Politix. "He's from urban Los Angeles - a different type of Democrat."

De Leon has fought against school vouchers, pushed to tighten gun control laws and helped develop a plan to build more parks in poor urban areas.

Steinberg, who has served in the post since 2009, helped to oversee the state's financial recovery and pushed for improved services for children with autism. He also pushed for improved rehabilitation programs in California's crowded prison system.

(Reporting by Sharon Bernstein; Editing by Peter Cooney)

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