Until legislative term limits changed the game, the speakership of the state Assembly was generally regarded as California’s second most powerful political office.

The speaker held life-and-death power over legislation, largely because he held politicians’ careers in his hands. Willie Brown, the longest-serving speaker, wasn’t kidding when he described himself as the “ayatollah of the Legislature.”

Accordingly, periodic speakership battles were often politically brutal. Brown was involved in several, including a legendary, yearlong power struggle in 1980 as then-Assemblyman Howard Berman attempted to unseat then-Speaker Leo McCarthy. Eventually, McCarthy’s outnumbered backers joined forces with Republicans to elect Brown — whom McCarthy had defeated six years earlier — as speaker.

In the late 1980s, a clutch of Democrats dubbed the “Gang of 5” attempted unsuccessfully to unseat Brown, and even after Republicans took nominal control of the Assembly in 1994, Brown got himself re-elected with a mind-boggling feat of parliamentary sorcery.

After Brown’s departure (to become mayor of San Francisco), term limits, adopted by voters in 1990, reduced the speaker from a dictator to, more often than not, a herder of political cats.

Term limits — and the gerrymander of legislative districts after the 2000 census — did create a new pattern of legislative leadership, however. The top Senate position, president pro tem, would be informally reserved for a white man from Northern California (Bill Lockyer, John Burton, Don Perata and now Darrell Steinberg) while the Assembly speakership would alternate between African American and Latino members from Los Angeles.

That’s why it’s long been assumed that a Latino from Los Angeles would succeed Speaker Karen Bass, who is black — but the question has been which politician. Kevin de Leon, a protégé of Bass’ predecessor, Fabian Nunez, had been the presumed front-runner, but had been unable to pin down an absolute majority of Democratic members, apparently because of an off-putting personality.

Suddenly, therefore, first-termer John Perez, a cousin of Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa (also a former speaker) emerged as the likely winner, even though Villaraigosa and Nunez had supposedly worked out a deal to give de León a clear shot. Bass, apparently angered that de León wanted to take over immediately, threw support to Perez.

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It’s intriguing to Capitol insiders and it’s historically noteworthy that Perez would become the first openly gay speaker. It also reveals something about the perpetual infighting in Los Angeles’ Latino political community.

It means very little, however, to 38 million other Californians, and has no effect on the deficit-ridden state budget and myriad other unresolved issues. It’s just changing the name on the speaker’s rather ornate office on the second floor of the Capitol.

Dan Walters is a columnist, based in Sacramento, for Scripps-Howard News Service. You can e-mail him at dwalters@sacbee.com.

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