A state senator’s arrest in a sweeping criminal investigation reversed what had been increasing public confidence in the California Legislature, according to a new Field Poll.
Perceptions of the Legislature had been on the upswing for months as the state’s once-tattered budget mended, though more voters than not continued to disapprove of their work as recently as December.
As the latest survey began, respondents in the first week showed net satisfaction with the Legislature (46 percent approving against 40 percent disapproving) for the first time in more than a decade.
“That would have been the first time in 13 years that more voters approved than disapproved of the Legislature,” said Mark DiCamillo, director of the Field Poll. “They were climbing out of a deep hole they had sunk into in the early part of this decade.”
Then came the news on March 26: early that morning , state Sen. Leland Yee, D-San Francisco, had been arrested along with dozens of others. An FBI affidavit alleged that Yee had taken campaign cash from undercover FBI agents and offered to set up an international arms deal. Yee became the third Democratic state senator beset by legal trouble in 2014, along with Sens. Rod Wright and Ron Calderon; the Senate has since suspended all three.
The case generated national headlines and arrested the trend of rising approval, pushing the public’s views back into the negative. In the survey’s second week, the Field Poll found that 46 percent disapproved against 43 percent approving.
“I think it was compounding the earlier news about the Calderon and Wright scandals and that kind of cumulative effect had an impact,” DiCamillo said.
Voters haven’t fully rejected their lawmakers, DiCamillo noted. Even after the Yee news pushed down views of the Legislature as a body, a clear majority of respondents still backed their specific state senator or Assembly member. Democrats retain a sunnier view than Republican or nonaffiliated voters.
“The Democrats are pretty much blocking out the scandal,” DiCamillo said. “They’re still positive and still view the Legislature positively.”