So far in 2014, each month has brought news of another arrest or conviction of a Democratic California state senator. The latest was Wednesday's arrest of Sen. Leland Yee of San Francisco on federal corruption charges, news that roiled the capital and led one of Yee's opponents in the race for secretary of state to call the Legislature a “corrupt institution.”
Democrats hold large majorities in both chambers of the Legislature and should be flying into election season this year, easily passing legislation and setting the agenda after taming California's busted budgets and turning their Republican rivals into a “superminority” in the nation's most populous state.
But now their dominance could be dampened by new revelations of dirty dealings by Democrats in the state Senate. One senator was convicted of voter fraud and perjury, and two others face federal charges for alleged misdeeds that include accepting large financial bribes for friends and family in exchange for legislation and orchestrating weapons and drug trafficking to help pay off campaign debts.
The Democratic leader of the Senate, President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, called a news conference at his Capitol office Wednesday, where he was flanked by 14 other Democratic senators as he called on Yee to resign or face suspension by his colleagues, saying “he cannot come back.”
“I know what people are thinking. This is the third incident the Senate has had to deal with,” an emotional Steinberg said. “We are going to do everything in our power to uphold the integrity of the Senate and do the people's business and still have a great and productive year.”
Yee, who sometimes challenged Democratic leaders, had been best known publicly for his efforts to promote government transparency and public records, for which he was celebrated just last week by the Society of Professional Journalists. He also introduced several bills last year to restrict gun possession. The federal affidavit unsealed Wednesday accuses Yee of conspiracy to deal firearms without a license and to illegally import firearms, among other allegations.
Republicans, who have been struggling to regain their political footing, have sought to capitalize on the wave of criminal charges as a way to undo Democrats' dominance in the Legislature. Republicans have repeatedly tried to expel Sen. Rod Wright of Inglewood after he was convicted of perjury and voter fraud in January for lying about his legal residence in Los Angeles County. Democratic leaders have blocked those efforts, though.
Wright and Sen. Ron Calderon, who was indicted on federal corruption charges in February, are on voluntary paid leave from the Legislature. Prosecutors say Calderon accepted about $100,000 for himself and family members in exchange for promoting legislation to expand Hollywood tax credits and protect the interest of a hospital that benefited from a provision of the workers' compensation law.
Sen. Joel Anderson, a Republican from Alpine who has led the expulsion efforts, blamed Democratic leaders for creating a culture of tolerance for illegal activity.
“If you refuse to act and you shirk your responsibility to act, is it a surprise that senators don't take ethics as seriously as they should?” Anderson said.
John Burton, chairman of the California Democratic Party, said he does not think voters will hold all Democrats accountable for the actions of three rogue operators, but he said the allegations are worrisome.
“It's a concern, one, because they're all Democrats, but more than that, it's a concern for the institution that I was honored to not just serve in but to lead, and nothing even close to that happened under that membership,” said Burton, who was Senate President Pro Tem from 1998 until 2004. “But you just don't know.”
Senate Minority Leader Bob Huff, R-Diamond Bar, agreed that the actions reflect poorly on lawmakers of both parties.
“We all get painted in the same brush,” he said. “The problem is manifesting itself, but people hold us all to the same standards.”
Yee's arrest also comes at the height of fundraising season as lawmakers are introducing bills and holding hearings on them in the Legislature. On most weeknights at this time of year, lawmakers and lobbyists scuttle between bars and restaurants in downtown Sacramento, where they shake hands and collect checks for their next political race. Lobbyists are not supposed to discuss pending legislation with lawmakers at such fundraising events, which usually cost hundreds or thousands of dollars to attend.
Two of Yee's opponents in the race for secretary of state used his arrest to draw attention to their calls for broader political reforms. The secretary of state's office oversees California elections and campaign-finance reporting.
Derek Cressman, a Democrat and former director of the good government group Common Cause who seeks strict limits on contributions and more disclosure about donors, said Yee's arrest is clearly part of a broader pattern in the capital. He called the Legislature corrupt.
“The constant begging for campaign cash clearly has a corrosive effect on a person's soul, and the only solution is to get big money out of our politics once and for all,” he said, adding that the bar for public office “should be higher than the bar for staying out of prison.”
Dan Schnur, another secretary of state candidate who has called for a ban on fundraising during budget season, said Yee's arrest is a reminder of why Californians have so little trust in their elected officials. He said he hoped it would “prompt the Legislature to take much more aggressive and meaningful action to fix a broken political system than they have been willing to do to date.”
Steinberg was asked Wednesday about whether further political reforms would help, but he was skeptical they would do much.
“We will continue looking to do whatever is necessary. But gun running?” Steinberg said. “There's no ethics reform that I am aware of to address, you know, that kind of allegation.”