- Associated Press - Wednesday, October 15, 2014

LOS ANGELES (AP) - Democratic Sen. Kevin de Leon was sworn in as the first Latino to head the California Senate in more than a century with an expensive and out-of-the-ordinary soiree Wednesday night in downtown Los Angeles.

The event at Walt Disney Concert Hall with an estimated price tag of $50,000 resembled a presidential inaugural more than the low-key affairs at the state Capitol held by past senate leaders.

“What a beautiful venue,” de Leon said of the modern architectural marvel designed by Frank Gehry. “This is a grand public building and the centerpiece of my district. I chose this venue because it sits close to the working families who put me in office, and it is a visual representation of California’s innovative spirit.”

The California Latino Legislative Caucus Foundation, which receives donations from special interests seeking influence in the Legislature, picked up the tab for the event and organizers emphasized no taxpayer money was involved.

Other than the location and size of the ceremony, there was little Hollywood opulence at the event.

The frills included a traditional mariachi band that greeted guests outside, and the more modern Mariachi Divas who performed the national anthem inside.

Most guests wore business suits and dresses, but a few women had fancier dresses and clusters of teens invited from local schools came in shorts and sneakers.

Ismael Hernandez, 18, said De Leon spoke earlier in the week with members of Legacy LA, a nonprofit youth development group in the East Los Angeles community of Boyle Heights.

De Leon pledged to donate money to the group “so we can fix our community,” said Hernandez, who attends Abraham Lincoln High School.

“We live… by a freeway, factories and where the train passes, so like a lot of bad chemicals in the air.” Hernandez said.

Dozens of current and former officeholders, including former Gov. Gray Davis and former LA Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, were among the 2,000 guests invited to witness the swearing-in of de Leon as state Senate president pro tempore.

Guests were also invited to a post-ceremony reception in a blocked-off street outside the concert hall, with food and drinks paid for by the caucus.

The event follows a California Democratic Party fundraiser on Tuesday night with a top ticket going for $50,000. The party declined to disclose how much was raised until it files its official campaign finance reports.

The swearing-in party comes during a year when two Democratic state senators were suspended after being charged in separate federal corruption cases, a third resigned after being sentenced to jail for perjury, and another faces DUI charges after a night of drinking that included late-night revelry with Latino caucus members inside the Capitol.

Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, said Senate leaders should “be extra careful not to be engaging in excess of any kind.”

However, Latino caucus spokesman Roger Salazar said the swearing-in is not too elaborate for such an historic event.

“While it is an inauguration, it also is a fairly down-to-earth one when you really think about it,” he said.

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Thompson reported from Sacramento.

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