“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” – Martin Luther King Jr.
Much has been written and will be written about the now-unsealed indictment of State Senator Leland Yee. Much has been written and will be written about the upcoming trial of State Senator Ron Calderon. And much has been written about the now completed trial of State Senator Rod Wright, who as we know was found guilty by a jury of his peer of eight felony crimes. It is unprecedented, as far as I know, that three different State Senators have been simultaneously serving under these extreme circumstances.
Darrell Steinberg didn’t sign up to be the President of the Senate in this kind of unprecedented “season of corruption” in the California legislature’s upper house. That having been said, the institution has needed a Pro Tem who can provide a bright, clear line between ethical, law abiding legislators, which we can hope number 37 – and this criminal element in the Senate, who clearly do not understand the distinction between right and wrong. Steinberg has fallen far short of the mark.
That having been said, Steinberg himself does not bear all of the responsibility for the totally jacked-up state of affairs in the Senate, there is plenty of blame to go around as most Senators have been content to let Steinberg set his very low bar.
The problem starts with Steinberg’s reaction to the jury verdicts in Los Angeles County of Rod Wright – he was found guilty of eight felony counts stemming from the fact that he didn’t live in his district. What should have been a wake-up call to a lot of Senators supposedly not living in their districts to quickly move into them, instead became a collective “looking the other way” with only four Senators – Anderson, Knight, Vidak and Wyland demanding a vote to expel Wright.
Where Steinberg should have used his leadership position to get Wright to resign, or call an impeachment vote, instead he threw his political support behind the felon in his midst. While some made a quixotic bid to “suspend” Wright that seemed more like political cover than anything else, the reality is that other than the four Senators, no other Senators have ever called for Wright’s immediate expulsion. Steinberg was content to let Wright go out on a paid vacation – a leave of absence – from which presumably he can return at his pleasure.
Then comes the indictment of Senator Ron Calderon, which everyone knew was coming since the leak of a lengthy, detailed FBI agent’s affidavit detailing egregious crimes committed by the Senator – corruption, money laundering and such. Some might say that a review of the charges might have caused a leader with moral clarity to call for a Senator in the midst of such serious allegations to step down from his office. Such a public call for a resignation would have been providing leadership. Instead, again, Steinberg accepted a self-imposed vacation – leave of absence – when clearly something more drastic was called for. Leadership was needed, but wasn’t provided.
Fast forward weeks, not months, and we now have the indictment of a third Senator, Leland Yee, charge with six counts of depriving the public of honest services and a count of conspiracy to traffic in guns. Only now, does Steinberg suddenly realize that he is on the cutting edge of a crisis in leadership. No doubt, sitting in a private room with his advisors, someone told Steinberg the obvious — that he cannot just respond by accepting another paid vacation from a Senator out on half a million dollars bail.
So now, in what is less about leadership that desperation, Steinberg emerges from his office, and addresses Senator Lee on camera, and asks him to resign. Something he did not do with Rod Wright. Something he did not do with Ron Calderon. But now his voice rings a bit hallow. What might have been received as a strong statement of concern for the institution instead comes across as a Senate President worried about his own image and legacy.
I will close with an unpleasant reminder that Darrell Steinberg is not an imperial ruler. He enjoys his leadership position with the support of all of his colleagues. So the responsibility for his actions are not just his own, but those of his conference who elevated him. Senator De Leon, who has been tapped to succeed him, presumably agrees with all of the decisions made by Steinberg.
And so as the latest Senator-turned-bad saga, with “Uncle Leland” Yee – enters its second day, Darrell Steinberg might be thinking about how he could have provided stronger leadership through these troubled times for the Senate – and his colleagues should be seriously questioning whether the institution needs a new leader.
Cross-posted at FlashReport.