Openly gay California Assembly Speaker John A. Perez has been so active in California politics and the labor movement for so long, no one has really questioned his academic record. Three official biographies issued by the office of Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, Perez’s cousin, when he was appointed to city commissions, said he was a graduate of the prestigious University of California at Berkley. In 2004, then-U.S. Rep. Hilda Solis (D-LA) – now the Sec. of Labor – read remarks about his life story into the Congressional Record: “After graduating from the University of California Berkeley, John began working on designing and organizing education programs.”
But a new report from California Watch, part of the independent, nonprofit Center for Investigative Reporting, says that’s not accurate. In fact, California Watch notes that Perez enrolled at UC Berkeley in 1987, was a Chicano studies major, but left in May 1990 without graduating, according to the university spokeswoman. However, the investigation notes, biographies distributed by the LA mayor and by then-Gov. Gray Davis naming him to a state elections board “are typically submitted by the subject of the news release or their aides.” That 2002 release when Davis appointed Pérez to the state Voting Modernization Board said: ”Mr. Pérez earned a bachelor of science degree from the University of California, Berkeley.”
Perez spokesperson John Vigna told the LA Times on Thursday that Pérez left school “to deal with family and financial issues” and took a job with the painters union. “We have been consistent and upfront during his time in office about the fact that he didn’t graduate,’’ Vigna said, adding that Perez has personally asked to correct the record at several points. His official bio on his website and other bios now show Perez “attending” the university, but makes no mention of him graduating.
But California Watch noted that a 2007 profile on LinkedIn said he was at UC Berkeley from 1987 to 1991 and Perez “told Capitol Weekly last year that he came out at a campus meeting in 1991.” That Capitol Weekly report set up Perez’s “It Gets Better” video, though there are no dates mentioned on the YouTube introduction or on his website:
(Sacramento) – Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez (D-Los Angeles) learned some time ago that love is more powerful than fear. It’s a lesson he learned from his Mother and Father on a Thanksgiving weekend during his college years. Since that lesson was learned Speaker Pérez has also learned “It absolutely gets better.” In this Assembly Access video Speaker Pérez recounts that Thanksgiving weekend and talks about how much better his life has been after learning love is more powerful than fear.
Late Thursday night, Perez issued a statement expressing regret over the “mistake:”
“I take full responsibility for the initial mischaracterization that I graduated, and any other mischaracterizations about this that I or others may have made,” Pérez said. “I take full responsibility for this mistake, and I regret it. I was surprised that these questions were raised because over the last several years as a candidate and legislator, I have worked to correct the record, but obviously I wasn’t diligent enough.”
A personal note: I am among the journalists who did not question Perez’s academic credentials. I have known and covered Perez since the mid-1990s when he became heavily involved with Stonewall Democratic Club. He was also very involved in the labor and Latino political movements and would often help me navigate and understand the political nuances in the complex world of LA Latino politics. He was – and is – so smart, having graduated from a prestigious university never was an issue. It didn’t matter. It still doesn’t matter.
What does matter is whether Perez intentionally lied and then tried to cover up that lie in order to deceive voters. Is this a mistake in “pumping up his resume,” as one person put it in the California Watch report? Or is this Watergate redux? Perez says he “regrets” and takes full responsibility for “this mistake” which he says he has tried to correct over the past several years. Will we forgive him or flay him?
As someone who has been given enumerable “second chances” in my life, I would hope that voters will not have such an absolutist reaction that Perez will find it difficult to move forward, personally and legislatively. And for LGBTs who feel the sheen has dulled on the armor of this historic LGBT figure, I offer these reminders of why so many have found Perez an inspiration:
Perez’s “It Gets Better” video: