Marcos Bretón

Marcos Breton: Will Senate scandals tarnish the legacy of Sacramento’s Darrell Steinberg?

Marcos Breton
Marcos Breton

The most powerful politician that Sacramento has produced in generations, Darrell Steinberg, is up against it like never before.

After years of slogging through massive state budget deficits that gutted the social safety net programs that he champions, Steinberg, the leader of the state Senate, is seeing an impressive array of legislative victories undermined by scandal.

If Steinberg were a lot more expedient and a lot less fair-minded, he could make it easier on himself by orchestrating the expulsion of three subordinate senators grappling with criminal charges.

If he just dumped those lawmakers – Rod Wright, Ron Calderon and Leland Yee, all Democrats like Steinberg – he could prove that he is “tough” and has “zero tolerance” for bad actors who’ve allegedly betrayed the public’s trust.

But Steinberg won’t do it. He believes in due process – even for those who smear everything he’s worked for and threaten to tarnish his final months as Senate leader.

Calderon has been indicted by a federal grand jury on 24 counts of corruption. Yee has been charged with corruption and conspiracy to illegally import guns. Neither has been convicted of anything yet, while Wright still could have his perjury conviction overturned by a judge.

But the three have been already convicted as scoundrels in the court of public opinion. People call for their heads and view Steinberg’s refusal to oust them as further proof of a corrupt Capitol dome.

I nearly fell off my chair with laughter while reviewing the FBI affidavit detailing a web of charges against Yee. In parts, it read like a bad detective novel with its laugh-out-loud references to one notorious figure in the case – an alleged Chinese gangster known as “Shrimp Boy.”

You can’t make this stuff up. But it’s only funny until you consider the damaging symbolism of a recognized gun control advocate, Yee, now being accused of gun running to bankroll his political aspirations.

As a Mexican American, I also was appalled that the three accused politicos are African American, Latino and Asian.

Great. Just great.

Thanks so much for whipping up the bigots and the negative stereotypes, guys. Even without guilty verdicts, one can say emphatically that these gentlemen have betrayed generations of hardworking people of color who deserve far better from purported “leaders.”

It’s understandable that some are clamoring for the Senate leader to mete out swift punishments, but the California Constitution does not authorize Steinberg or the Legislature to suspend a member without pay.

Steinberg, who graduated in the same UC Davis law school class as the current head of the state Supreme Court, Tani Cantil-Sakauye, shares the same sense of understated honor as the chief justice.

He won’t expel men whose cases haven’t fully played out in court, though the three have been suspended with pay.

Gov. Jerry Brown created some buzz Friday by calling on the three legislators to resign, but Steinberg had already done that with far less fanfare, and all of the senators are refusing to relinquish their posts.

All that’s left for Steinberg is take his lumps, ride it out and answer a dispiriting question: Will the stain of three accused colleagues become Steinberg’s legacy as Senate president pro tem?

“I could hang my head or I could hold my head high and do the people’s business,” Steinberg told me last week. “I choose to do the latter.”

Suspending three senators at once is already a surreal occurrence in the Legislature, but its significance is brushed aside by a tidal wave of voter disgust and media criticism.

Unless or until he is implicated in wrongdoing himself, Steinberg’s record is best judged over the course of his career – and not over a few madcap weeks of personal failures by Senate colleagues.

Steinberg is the last political leader standing from the 2009 economic meltdown in California. He was a key player in dealing with a $42 billion state budget deficit that was once killing the state.

On prison reform, mental health funding, water and transportation, Steinberg helped pass key legislation. He helped build a supermajority of Democrats in the Senate that’s now lost due to the accusations against the three lawmakers in his caucus.

His work and approachable demeanor are the kind that won’t be appreciated fully until after he has left the Legislature.

He helped Sacramento keep the Kings and move toward construction of a new downtown arena. He’s promoted programs for the mentally ill and for students in danger of dropping out of high school.

The irony is that Steinberg’s refusal to do the expedient when it comes to his embattled Senate colleagues makes him a target for expedient public anger.

He still thinks noble work can be produced from the bloody sausage grind of legislating in an age of public mistrust.

It’s who he was as a Sacramento city councilman years ago. It’s who he is now – come “Shrimp Boy” or high water.

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