Rod Wright may be the most controversial member of the California Legislature – for good reason.
Wright, a Democratic senator who represents an inner city Los Angeles district, has constantly been in and out of ethical hot water during his two stints in the Legislature.
A couple of years ago, the Senate quietly settled – for $120,000 – allegations of sexual harassment leveled against Wright by a former member of his staff, Fahizah Alim, who said Wright maintained an "intolerable" work environment.
Wright is under indictment for perjury and voter fraud, charged with lying about his place of residence when he ran for the Senate in 2008.
He chairs the Senate Governmental Organization Committee, whose innocuous name masks the fact that it deals with horse racing, gambling and liquor, and he has been an adamant supporter for expanded gambling, particularly of the online variety.
During his days in the Assembly, Wright was a strong advocate for men in divorce cases, earning the enmity of feminists – especially when he carried legislation altering the terms of alimony. And on many other matters – such as gun control – Wright often bucks his party's orthodoxy.
But his self-appointed role as Democratic contrarian is in many ways refreshing and valuable to the legislative process, because he brings a level of common sense to many issues that is otherwise lacking in the robotic positions taken by members of both parties.
That quality was on display during a recent Senate budget subcommittee hearing on education issues.
At one point, the subcommittee was discussing how to spend proceeds from Proposition 39, a 2012 ballot measure that is supposed to raise about $1 billion a year by changing how multistate corporations are taxed.
Wright said the Legislature shouldn't be committing the money to energy-savings projects in schools until it knows whether the money will actually materialize, since corporations might change operations to escape the measure's effects – and there's no way to actually pinpoint what revenue results from it.
That's good advice, because the Legislature often makes financial commitments based on assumptions rather than reality.
But Wright really shone as the senators were talking about Gov. Jerry Brown's plan to reconfigure school finance and, among other things, eliminate money now earmarked for vocational education. Wright worried that local officials would favor college prep over job-related classes.
"We're simply disenfranchising damn near 70 percent of the kids who attend high school," Wright opined. And for those who worry that vocational education is "tracking" poor students, he had this pithy retort: "We're just tracking them into prison now."
He's absolutely correct, if politically incorrect.