Here’s a thought exercise for the Leland Yee scandal. What if the investigation had been delayed, or stayed underground, for another year? What if last week’s raids had come not in March 2014 – but in March 2015?
And what if it were California Secretary of State Leland Yee who was being taken into custody by the FBI?
Such an alternative universe is hardly an unlikely one. Yee was a strong contender in the race, and a victory would not have been improbable.
Would our reaction be the same?
I would argue: not exactly.
Right now, attention is focused on the State Senate, as if there’s something about Democrats in the upper house of the legislature that is just plain rotten. This, of course, is nonsense. One of the three senators suspended violated residency rules that are pretty weak; he’s only a criminal because of anti-politician culture. Another of the three senators appears to have taken bribes in performance of his official duties.
And then there’s Yee—whose alleged crimes didn’t exactly take place in the normal course of business. (Unless there’s a lot more trafficking in shoulder-fired missiles in the Capitol than the public knows).
Yee likely would have raised more money, perhaps from corrupt sources, in the course of a Secretary of State’s race. (He also might have gotten a fair amount of good government money, given the reputation he created for himself through legislation like the online voter registration). And if he’d won, his arrest would have created tremendous pressure for him to step down from office – and attempts to impeach him. My guess is that such attempts would have been successful.
So what would be different? The current “three scandals” (really one non-scandal, one small scandal, and one Technicolor scandal, Yee’s) have focused attention on the legislature. But Yee was running for statewide office – down ticket. And a year later, more attention would have focused on those down ballot offices.
Attention should focus on such offices, because they have been magnets for corruption. The most serious investigations and corruption over the past 20 years has involved just those offices — because of a bad combination: no one pays much attention to these offices and yet they have some power and money that must be raised. So it’s not surprising that a corruption politician would eye one of these down-ballot offices.
Right now, the reform conversation is all about new regulations on campaign finance and some sort of new ethics commission for legislators. But a simpler, and better, reform would be to change the status of these down ballot offices – and make them appointed, rather than elected positions. There’s no good reason to have a separately elected insurance commissioner, state schools superintendent, treasurer, controller or attorney general – those are all jobs that could be filled by a governor. And making those elected offices just encourages corruption – and in races that don’t get enough scrutiny.
Secretary of State might well remain an elected position, and it might be wise to make it a nonpartisan position at that. But with other down ticket offices eliminated, more attention would focus on this particular race.
If we were to respond to the Yee scandal now in the way we would have a year later, we’d probably do a better job of enacting reforms that would make a difference.