Sacramento House of Cards: Oh Yee of Little Faith

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

The big news out of Northern California today (aside from some long-overdue rain): State Sen. Leland Yee detained and arrested by the feds amidst a sweeping series of raids by FBI and gang task force agents.

Yee’s a Democrat from San Francisco, a longtime fixture in Sacramento, and a political pioneer: the first Chinese-America elected to the State Senate and, before that, the number-two Democrat in the State Assembly. At present, he’s a candidate for California’s Secretary of State – that candidacy now, obviously in deep trouble, if not finished.

Sadly, it’s the latest installment in a real-life version of House of Cards occurring under California’s State Capitol Dome.

Last week, Senate Democrats voted down a Republican resolution to expel state Sen. Roderick Wright – a Democrat convicted of eight felony counts of voter fraud and perjury.

And there’s State Sen. Ronald Calderon, a Democrat indicted on federal corruption charges for allegedly accepting almost $100,000 in bribes and other assorted mischief (free food, free golf).

Both senators are on a leave of absence – though they’re still receiving their taxpayer salaries.

Here are three quick takeaways from Yee’s transition from running for higher office to riding in the back of a squad car.

Absolute Power Corrupts. The last time Republicans controlled California’s State Senate? That would be 1956 – the same year Eisenhower was re-elected, Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal, Elvis cut his first gold album, and a full decade before some fellow named Reagan took on Jerry Brown’s father for governor of California. Nearly 60 years later, Democrats entered 2014 with a crushing 28-11 supermajority – with it, the ability to pass any piece of legislation it so desired (run-of-the-mill statutes, tax increases, constitutional amendment) without the need for GOP input and votes. That supermajority is no more, thanks to the three senators’ legal troubles (State Senate supermajorities are based on two-thirds of 40 seats; a minimum of 27 seats is needed). It’s reminiscent of what befell congressional Democrats in 1994, when the party seemed a little too arrogant and a lot too corrupt (remember the House banking scandal?) after four decades of majority control. The need to take advantage of supermajority led Senate Democrats down a bad political path earlier this month when they opened a hornet’s nest over affirmative action and college admissions. Yee’s apparent association with a gangster named “Shrimp Boy” suggests not only a politician who lost his bearings but perhaps adds to the perception of an institution unfamiliar with the concepts of honorable conduct and voter backlash.

A New “E” for GOP? California elections tend to revolve around a set of issue all beginning with the same first letter – economy, education, and environment. In 2014, will Republicans find a way to add a fourth “e” – “ethics” – to that list? For a party-out-of-power that’s struggling to find common ground with swing voters, the Democratic scandals could be a godsend – fraud, bribery, perjury and fraternizing with mobsters hardly being wedge issues. The simplest way for California Republicans to package this: by plagiarizing verbatim from 1994’s Contract With AmericaTo restore accountability to Congress the State Legislature. To end its cycle of scandal and disgrace. To make us all proud again of the way free people govern themselves.”A trickier matter: how legislative Republicans play the ethics reform package recently introduced by their Democratic counterparts.

Impact on the SoS Race. Before his run-in with the law, Yee was one of a handful of candidates – Republican, Democratic, independent – angling for a top-two finish in the June open primary for Secretary of State (among other responsibilities, the SoS is California’s chief election officer). Assuming that effort’s now cratered, who benefits from Yee’s fall? Obviously, some disenchanted Democrats will migrate to the frontrunner, State Sen. Alex Padilla. But keep an eye on Dan Schnur, a USC academic and nonpartisan. On the day before Lee’s legal troubles, the Schnur campaign issued this press release touting the candidate’s “anti-corruption agenda”. Before that, he called on Lee to vote to expel Roderick Wright from the State Senate. Historically, third-parties candidates in California are at a disadvantage: no grassroots infrastructure; the struggle to build a donor network. But the latest scandal adds gives Schnur’s candidacy a rationalization and potentially a tailwind – in a year when strange winds are blowing through California’s State Capitol.


Follow Bill Whalen on Twitter: @hooverwhalen