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For State Senator, Golden Opportunity Tied to the Golden Years

Since his retirement savings bill passed the California Legislature last fall, state Sen. Kevin de León has found himself the darling of the think tank crowd. He’s also been jetting back and forth to Washington, D.C., raising his national profile and prompting speculation about a run for higher office.

Last month, he addressed a panel at the Center for American Progress to discuss retirement policy. A few weeks later, he was back, speaking to the National Institute on Retirement Security.

De León, 45, still sounds somewhat amazed that he was finally able to get his long-sought bill signed into law and that it has received the attention it has.

“You had so many people, to their credit, that have been involved on this issue not just years before us, but decades,” he said.

A child of the border, de León grew up between Tijuana, Mexico, and San Diego. He was raised by his mother and his aunt, both of whom worked as housekeepers. After college, he started working as a community organizer, teaching undocumented immigrants English, history and civics so they could apply for legal status under the 1986 immigration overhaul law.

He eventually took a position with the National Education Association in Washington, D.C., which led to a job with the California Teachers’ Association. He served four years in the California Assembly before being elected to the state Senate in 2010.

“I think he’s a rising star because he’s got a [retirement savings] model that potentially can work in lots of other places. He also has a very compelling story about the need for this,” said David Madland, a retirement security expert at the Center for American Progress. “He’s also ambitious and sees the potential to make a big difference.”

Madland said he did not know what de León’s ambitions are, but he added: “He’s clearly a person who could be a leader on a much larger stage.”

De León, when asked about his future, demurs. Still, he does not sound too eager at the prospect of coming to Washington.

“Congress is a hard gig,” he said. “There’s not a lot that gets done there.”

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