After 14 years in the California Legislature, Sen. Darrell Steinberg’s tenure comes to an end on Sunday. The Sacramento Democrat, who served six years as Senate leader, reflected on his experience in the Legislature during an interview in a spartan temporary office inside the Capitol.
Bare nailheads stuck out from blank white walls. Bubble-wrapped plaques stood piled in a corner. Steinberg pored over a stack of handwritten notes – which he plans to donate to the state archives – prepared for speeches over the last several years. Among them: addresses about driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants, a plan to reduce crowding in California prisons and a pitch to keep the Kings in Sacramento that he delivered to the NBA’s board of governors. Below are excerpts from his conversation with The Sacramento Bee.
You were sometimes criticized for not being a hard-nosed-enough leader, almost too nice. Looking back, in what instances should you have been tougher?
That is a critique I suppose I’ve lived with my entire political career. And I’ve gone from being frustrated about it to laughing about it. Because when you look at the record and you look at the period of time that I led through – the worst recession in modern history, the overwhelming budget deficits, the numerous budgets and all of the decisions within those budgets, whether it was the cuts themselves, whether it was redevelopment, whether it was realignment, whether it was pension reform. ... During my tenure, I never lost a hard vote. Ever. People confuse being nice with not being tough enough, and it’s a myth.
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The idea that Sen. (Ron) Calderon was pushing the ethical envelope was the worst-kept secret at the Capitol for years. Do you feel any indirect responsibility for the behavior that has been alleged against him?
No. I made very clear to all the members what my expectations were in terms of their behavior and their ethics. But, you know, you can’t baby-sit people. You can’t watch people every minute. ... There are some things that are so beyond the pale that you can’t teach. But I always made it very clear what the expectations were. In the end it’s up to the members to govern themselves.
Problems also emerged this year on the administrative side of the Senate. You fired a peace officer who tested positive for cocaine the night he was involved in a fatal off-duty shooting. And you later accepted the resignations of two high-ranking Senate officials – the officer’s boss and his mother. Does the Senate have a nepotism problem?
I don’t know that I would describe it as a nepotism problem. What I say is that when I found out about any of these problems I took immediate action. And as a result, my successor starts with a clean slate. Certainly the Senate is a great institution with a very storied history. And I led during a very rough patch. What you do when you’re confronted with these things that I didn’t cause, that go far back before I even started, is that when you become aware of them, you deal with them. And that’s what I did.
You served under three governors – Gray Davis, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jerry Brown. With whom did you have the best working relationship?
I wasn’t the leader when Gray Davis was the governor, I was the appropriations chair, so I didn’t really have a lot of interaction with him. … Personality-wise, I enjoyed Gov. Schwarzenegger ... (there was) more joking around and that sort of thing. Although there were a couple of occasions where I threw a couple f-bombs. ... He had said during the budget crisis that ... we must be on mushrooms if we thought he was not going to cut CalWorks or something. So I, as a nice thing, sent him a box of mushrooms with a nice note. So he responded, sort of in kind but inappropriately, by sending me (a statue of) some bull’s balls. With a note that basically said, ‘You have to have the balls to make deeper cuts.’ And I’ve got a good sense of humor – I cut up all the darn time – but I was offended. And I sent them back. ... I wrote to him and said, ‘I don’t want to equate having fortitude with making cuts. In fact, just the opposite. We’ve got to do all we can to make sure we minimize these cuts.’ But we had a good relationship. We had a lot of laughs. And I give him some credit here too because ... the four legislative leaders won the John F. Kennedy (Profile in Courage) award. He was the governor then, and he was every bit a part of it. People forget that that was a very harrowing time. The state was days away from a real economic collapse. ... But I think I’ve enjoyed working with Gov. Brown more because of his skill, the fact that we share the common values, and the fact that (during) his four years we were really on the road to recovery. And the last two years, we really got a lot of good stuff done.
How do you think you’ve changed California through your work?
I’ve been very fortunate to legislate in a variety of important areas ... and I have 12 that top my list. ... First one is leadership and budget. … The fact that we went from $42 billion (deficit) to $30 billion to $26 billion to $19 billion to $11 billion to balanced budget to surplus. And that I was the one legislative leader from the very beginning to the very end of that ... Do you know what it took to deliver the redevelopment vote (to dissolve local agencies)? With all these members from local government? … Realignment (moving control of some state prisoners to local authorities), with the Legislature traditionally very wary of being seen as soft on crime and law enforcement being against all that? … We saw through four years of budget deficits and budget cuts and delivered. So that’s No. 1.
No. 2. I think I’ve been changing California around the mental health issue. ... In 2016-17, when you look at the projections for Proposition 63 (a tax on millionaires to fund mental health programs) and then you look at what I delivered in 2013 – we’re going to be near $2 billion of additional public investment, focused not only on services but on crisis response. …
No. 3. Career pathways and changing the (school) accountability index. ... The goal is to transform the high school experience, to integrate academic rigor and career relevance, and to make and prepare young people better for their futures.
SB 375, which has changed the growth and planning landscape in California. You go around the state and it has changed the way local governments interact, the way regions now have taken a predominant role in terms of land use, transportation planning and climate change.
There’s preschool. … Around the country, this is seen now as a huge advance because (we’re adding) 43,000 slots over the next couple of years. ...We have now laid the foundation for universal preschool.
No. 6. Permanent sources of funding for transit and affordable housing from cap-and-trade implementation. That’s going to be billions of dollars.
Seven. Mandatory (insurance coverage for) treatment for early intervention for kids with autism.
One of the things I’m really proud of, No. 8, because it’s a symbol of the worst of the cuts that I’ve talked about, is the restoration of dental care for millions of low-income Californians. ...
The downtown arena and the city revitalization, No. 9.
Prison overcrowding, that was a major step and we began a paradigm shift here. ... I bought time on the prison-overcrowding lawsuit and didn’t commit to spend that money on just building more jail cells. That is a foundation and a big change.
Restoration of the indirect initiative in California (allowing review and changes before a measure reaches the ballot). No. 11.
And No. 12, which is a huge thing I’ve led on from the beginning to the end: water. I was the architect of the 2009 (bond proposal). ... And of course I was the lead negotiator in my last months on the (2014) water bond. …
So despite some of the bumps and bruises ... I feel great about the work product and what I’ve been able to actually accomplish. Because much of it has the potential to be long-lasting.
What was the proudest moment of your legislative career?
The truth is there have been a few. I would say the passage of (mental health care measure) Proposition 63 on election night in 2004. (The budget vote on) Feb. 21, 2009. Six in the morning and ... Walt Gray of Channel 3 on air took his forefinger and pressed it against my cheek and said you haven’t shaved. (Laughs.) Because it’s been 42 hours, or however long it was. But getting through that after Dave Cogdill had been deposed as leader and we finally got that last vote. ... That was a feeling of great support and camaraderie. We were in this epic battle together.
What was your darkest moment?
No question that the incidents around the members this year were my darkest moments. ... It’s that feeling of knowing, one, that I didn’t do it and it wasn’t me, and yet feeling responsibility for the institution. And being sickened by it.
There have been a few incidents, so specifically which members are you referring to?
I’m referring to (Sen. Ron) Calderon and (Sen. Leland) Yee, (who were indicted this year in separate federal corruption investigations.) I didn’t have that same revulsion with (Sen.) Rod Wright (convicted of lying about where he lived) – it was a different situation. But the two.
There clearly was tension between you and Speaker (John A.) Pérez. What was that about – policy differences, different styles or some sort of rivalry?
I have great respect for John’s acumen, and his ability, and the way he led his house. He was every bit a partner. And we never let our stylistic difference stand in the way of getting things done, but we are just very different. … He was a guy who liked to keep things very close. And I was more effusive. We’re just very different personalities, so we clashed. But ... it never once led to defeat of something where there should have been success.
In the final months of your term in office, your 20-year-old daughter Jordana went public with the story of her struggle to overcome a severe childhood mood disorder, sharing many personal details about her violent outbursts and the years she spent away from home while she was treated in psychiatric care facilities. How has your family changed now that this story is out there?
It has been a uniformly positive experience. And for her, it’s been empowering. ... People have come up and said we were inspired, this helped us begin to deal with whatever is going on in (their) own family. Everybody knows somebody. And Jordana is a normal 20-year-old young woman. She is going to school full time. She is working part time. She has her own apartment. She’s got a boyfriend. She’s living her life. And the real point here is that recovery is possible, and that we must bring these issues out of the closet.
You have announced plans to establish a mental health policy institute upon leaving office. What are your goals with that effort?
What I want to focus on is leadership development. I want more elected officials to take on a part of this agenda. To me that involves developing legislation under different categories – whether it be criminal justice, housing and homelessness, veterans, child welfare, education – and then encouraging more members to take on a piece of this agenda. Because it is my view that we can’t rely just on one leader, or two leaders. The agenda has to be built organically.
Call Laurel Rosenhall, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 321-1083. Follow her on Twitter @LaurelRosenhall.
Timeline of key moments in Darrell Steinberg’s career:
June 2, 1992: Elected to the Sacramento City Council, where he served six years and championed efforts to create more after-school programs for children and ban the sale of cheaply made small-caliber handguns known as “Saturday night specials.”
Nov. 3, 1998: Elected to the California Assembly, where he served six years – the maximum allowed by term limits – and carried 31 bills that were signed into law.
Nov. 2, 2004: California voters approved Proposition 63, crafted by Steinberg, to increase taxes on millionaires and devote the money to mental health programs.
Dec. 1, 2004: Joined the law firm Hanson, Bridgett, Marcus, Vlahos & Rudy. Steinberg’s clients included Joe and Gavin Maloof, then-owners of the Sacramento Kings basketball team, as they prepared ballot measures to ask voters to raise sales taxes to pay for a new arena at the downtown railyard. The measures failed.
Nov. 7, 2006: Elected to the California Senate, where he served eight years. Key legislation included bills to reduce pollution by changing the way local communities plan homes and transportation; expand preschool for low-income children; and revise environmental law to speed the building of a Sacramento arena.
Nov. 25, 2008: Took over as the 46th president pro tem of the California Senate, one of the state’s most powerful political positions.
March 16, 2010: Along with California’s three other legislative leaders from both political parties, won the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage award for bipartisan cooperation to close a $40 billion budget deficit. The recession-era budget involved making heavy cuts to social services and schools, and supporting temporary tax hikes.
Jan. 1, 2013: Named by The Wall Street Journal as one of 13 “people to watch” across the country for his work helping Democrats achieve a two-thirds majority in the California Senate during the 2012 election. Democrats lost their supermajority in 2014, when three Democratic senators were suspended while they fought criminal charges in separate cases involving perjury, bribery and conspiracy to traffic weapons.
Oct. 15, 2014: Steinberg turned 55 and handed leadership of the Senate to Sen. Kevin de León, D-Los Angeles.
Dec. 1, 2014: Scheduled to begin work as an attorney for the Greenberg Traurig law and lobbying firm in Sacramento.