The state Senate has been, as this column pointed out recently, very inconsistent in policing its members’ ethics, sometimes hammering them for minor transgressions and other times overlooking truly egregious conduct, such as sexual harassment.
The current example is the disparate attitude of Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg and others toward two Democrats, Rod Wright and Ron Calderon.
Calderon, who’s under federal investigation, was sharply criticized by Steinberg and stripped of all committee assignments.
Wright, convicted of felony counts for lying about his residence, is being handled very sympathetically by Steinberg, et al., asserting that the Senate itself is the authority on a senator’s fitness to serve.
That gives Wright at least a few more weeks in office, but California law says flatly that once a jury’s felony verdict has been ratified by the trial judge, a guilty official must vacate his office.
Why the attitudinal differential?
It may have something to do with Calderon’s clumsy attempt to draw Steinberg into his case, or it may hinge on senatorial arithmetic.
Democrats lost one Senate seat in a special election last year and stand at 28, just one over the two-thirds margin needed for actions such as non-budget urgency bills, tax increases and constitutional amendments.
The Democratic supermajority was employed last month to pass a constitutional amendment on race-based affirmative action, and other controversial measures are likely to come up later this year because chances are fairly high that Republican gains in November will erode the supermajority.
In other words, the time has come for Democrats to use their supermajority before they lose it.
Were Wright to go, the Democrats would drop to just 27 votes and need all of them to move those measures. And that would give Calderon, or any other Democratic member, a veto.
There is, however, another angle to the saga – whether Wright has been convicted of a felony for something that’s not very important and/or is commonly done by other politicians without prosecution.
Members of Congress don’t have to live in the districts they represent, and many don’t. It’s common knowledge that other state legislators maintain official addresses in their districts that are facades, as Wright was accused of doing.
Last year, Bee reporter Jim Sanders staked out Assemblyman Richard Pan and demonstrated that he was claiming residence in his district while spending most of the time with his family outside the district.
The Senate recently gave permission to Sen. Ted Gaines to reside outside his district, even though the law says he must live inside.
“Everybody does it” is never a valid excuse for illegal conduct, but the apparently selective prosecution of Wright is another troublesome aspect of a troublesome situation.