The California Legislature underwent a fundamental transformation in 1980 – largely unappreciated at the time.
Its priorities changed, symbolized by the traumatic change of Assembly leadership from a policy-minded speaker, Leo McCarthy, to the most skilled political operative of the era, Willie Brown.
A similar shift occurred in the Senate when its majority Democrats, worried about losing control, ousted policy wonk James Mills and elected a much more partisan David Roberti as president pro tem.
The ensuing wheeler-dealer decade culminated in a federal corruption investigation, multiple convictions and a 1990 backlash in the form of voter-imposed term limits. The Legislature, however, continued to decline in performance and public standing.
This bit of history places Darrell Steinberg, who is termed-out and stepping down as Senate president pro tem, in perspective.
Steinberg has been the most policy-minded legislative leader since Leo McCarthy, notwithstanding the fact that his last year has been marred by multiple scandals.
Three Democratic senators were suspended from legislative duties as they faced criminal charges, and some critics claim Steinberg fostered a climate that tolerated wrongdoing.
In fact, it was simple coincidence. However, Steinberg bears some – but not all – responsibility for another scandal involving allegations of nepotism and other unseemly personnel practices in the Senate staff.
Scandal aside, Steinberg’s legislative career is a nuanced one.
Like Leo McCarthy, Steinberg is a classic, pro-government liberal and sees himself as a mediator who can solve any conflict. He was fully engaged in dealing with a years-long fiscal crisis, and has been a very effective advocate for transit-oriented housing density, mental health and other services.
Simultaneously, Steinberg has served his Sacramento constituency energetically, most obviously with a bill to speed up a new basketball arena.
Some Democrats believe that, preoccupied with policy issues, he hasn’t fully protected their interests. After winning a Senate supermajority of 29 seats in 2012, Democrats lost a seat in a special election and could slip to 26 this year.
Notwithstanding his McCarthy-like qualities, Steinberg also has not been averse to Willie Brown-like manipulations. As an assemblyman, for example, he tried to shift sales taxes from suburban communities into Sacramento’s city and county coffers, and five years ago, he tried to slip $10 million for a pet project, the Institute for Advancing Unity, into a water bond.
“Frankly, if I have the opportunity to use the power I have to further civil rights and to further California history in any way, I’m going to do that,” Steinberg said, before removing the money.
That ends-justify-the-means attitude is why Steinberg’s legacy is a mixed bag.