Dan Walters

Dan Walters: Democrats lose Senate supermajority, but could get it back this year

Dan Walters
Dan Walters

With two of his fellow Democratic senators facing criminal charges, it’s been a stressful last year in office, at least so far, for Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg.

The usually unflappable Steinberg even snapped at reporters last week as he was peppered with questions about Sen. Rod Wright, who’s been convicted of felony perjury, and Sen. Ron Calderon, who faces federal corruption charges.

Steinberg had just announced that Calderon would be given a week – until today – to either resign or take a leave of absence, and if he refused, the Senate would then suspend him indefinitely. He accepted Calderon’s offer to take a leave Sunday evening.

Talk about Calderon’s status triggered pertinent questions about why the Senate was not doing anything about Wright, and finally, Steinberg – for the first time – said that were Wright’s conviction to be ratified by the trial judge before sentencing on May 16 he could “no longer remain in the Senate.”

A day later, Wright announced that he’d take a leave of absence, and on Friday, a still-testy Steinberg and other Democrats sidetracked a Republican move to expel him immediately.

For the moment, therefore, the ranks of Democratic senators are reduced to 26, one under the “supermajority” that they won in 2012, and they can no longer move constitutional amendments, tax increases and other measures requiring two-thirds Senate votes without GOP help.

Steinberg also faces a strong possibility that Democrats will lose their supermajority outright in the November election.

While supermajorities in both houses were scarcely used in 2013, there have been some plans to employ them this year, mostly for constitutional amendments that liberal activists seek.

Just one – partially repealing the 1996 constitutional ban on affirmative action – has cleared the Senate this year, but others are in the pipeline.

But could the Senate supermajority return before the end of the legislative session on Aug. 31?

Yes. It may be many months before Calderon is tried, and he must leave the Senate due to term limits later this year anyway.

But Wright is another matter. Even were he to remain on leave until sentencing in May, state law would allow a special election quickly enough to get another Democrat – probably Assemblyman Isadore Hall – in place before the session ends, assuming his successor won the seat outright in the special primary election with more than half the votes, avoiding a runoff.

Were Wright to resign or be ousted sooner, in a week or two, Gov. Jerry Brown would call a special election and a replacement could be seated as early as May.

Thus, how soon anything happens hinges on whether Wright believes that the judge will ratify his guilty verdict or grant a new trial.