Editorial: Steinberg leaves after 14 years in the Legislature, not a bad run

In a business filled with self-promoters and poseurs, Darrell Steinberg was neither. In a Capitol where news releases often pass for policy, Steinberg brought about significant change.

The outgoing Senate president pro tem is being forced to leave the Legislature after 14 years because of term limits. He served his Sacramento district and California well, even as he and his family struggled at home as his daughter, Jordana, revealed in a powerful report about her mental illness by The Bee’s Cynthia Craft two weeks ago.

Steinberg left his mark on virtually all major policy approved during the six years he served as Senate leader: far-reaching environmental legislation intended to reduce dependence on petroleum, vocational education for kids who aren’t college-bound, and a new preschool program for children of low-income parents.

He dabbled in questionable legislation, too, including sops to organized labor and bills to expand and further legitimize marijuana and legalize Internet poker.

A labor lawyer by trade, Steinberg most often sided with unions. All Democrats do. Labor is the foundation of Democratic power in California. Unions provide campaign money and political organization.

Steinberg also crossed unions by agreeing to budget deals that led to furloughs during Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s administration and cuts to social welfare programs. The cuts would have been deeper if he had not led the Senate.

As politicians go, Steinberg can come off as a bit of an innocent. But he had a hard political side to him. He raised millions for Democrats and oversaw an election machine in which Democrats claimed a two-thirds majority, then lost it because of the corrosive influence money has on politicians.

He presided over a Senate where nepotism flourished and where lobbyists passed out goodies including hard-to-get tickets to playoff games. As he leaves, two members of his house face federal corruption charges. A third was sentenced last week to three months in jail for lying about where he resided.

Like other politicians, he doesn’t hide his light. Nor does he tout everything he does. He inserted himself in the case of a chronically mentally ill man named Matthew Herrera last year, seeking to ensure he received proper care. Quietly, he reached out to Herrera’s sister and provided with her an internship, something that can only help her as she pursues her college education.

Steinberg’s most lasting legacy will be the passage of Proposition 63, a 2004 initiative that raised income taxes on people earning $1 million or more to pay for mental heath care. Think about that accomplishment a moment.

Many politicians spend their time on the public stage tending to campaign donors. Mentally ill people don’t vote and they don’t contribute. There is not much upside to raising taxes on millionaires who do vote and do contribute.

Critics have said too much of Proposition 63 money is spent on frothy programs that don’t benefit seriously sick people. That’s probably true.

But for decades, politicians lamented the lack of care for mentally ill people and did little about it. Steinberg succeeded. The Mental Health Services Act provides more than $1 billion annually for what was a chronically underfunded system. Tens of thousands of needy people have received care they might not have gotten.

On the Sunday after this legislative session ended and he cast his final votes, the story about his daughter and the Steinbergs’ turbulent family life appeared. He sent an email to all sitting members of the Legislature flagging the article.

“The only reason my family and I are sharing such a personal and painful story is to let others in similar circumstances know that they have real hope,” he wrote.

“Many of you have introduced bills and led on mental health issues in the Legislature,” he added. “It is an issue which knows no partisan lines. Its impacts and suffering escape no race, class, gender, age, or sexual orientation. It affects every other agenda we address in the Legislature, from education to criminal justice and much more.”

He ended by making what he called his “wonky version of the ice bucket challenge:”

“I ask all of you who are returning ... Please each commit to introducing at least one bill in 2015 that improves and expands the care and treatment for those living with mental illness.

“I imagine 120 tangible Legislative ideas. Whether most become law is secondary. Improving and expanding the mental health system must become a higher state priority. A bipartisan-bicameral agenda with hundreds of ideas that transcends all our differences could help millions of people in our communities.”

That’s not a bad idea from a politician who has had a very good run.