Felony allegations cost California Democrats their super majority

Two California state senators in trouble with law enforcement officials are taking indefinite leaves of absence, rejecting Republican calls for their resignations and — at least temporarily — costing Democrats their super majority.

Last week, Senate Democrats voted down a Republican resolution to expel state Sen. Roderick Wright (D), who was convicted of eight felony counts of voter fraud and perjury on Jan. 28. Wright was first indicted in 2010 on charges that he lied on his voter registration form and candidate filings and committed voter fraud in five elections.

State Sen. Ronald Calderon (D), who has been indicted on federal corruption charges for allegedly accepting almost $100,000 in bribes, meals and golf outings, including $88,000 in bribes from an undercover FBI agent, last week began a leave of absence to fight the charges.

Federal agents raided Calderon’s Sacramento offices last June. He has pleaded not guilty to 24 charges and released on bond.

Both senators will receive taxpayer-funded paychecks during their absences.

Democrats control 28 of the 40 seats in the state Senate, a super majority large enough to pass their legislative priorities without input from the body’s 11 Republicans. (One seat is vacant.) But with Wright and Calderon on leave, the 26 Democratic votes aren’t enough to overcome filibusters.

That means the Democrats’ remaining agenda in Sacramento is at risk. Legislative rules require a super majority to raise taxes or pass constitutional amendments; Senate Democrats had hoped to pass a tax increase before leaving Sacramento to campaign in advance of this year’s midterm elections.

If both Wright and Calderon were to quit, Gov. Jerry Brown (D) could call special elections to replace them. Both their districts are heavily Democratic. Wright represents heavily African American Inglewood, where President Obama won 80 percent of the vote in 2012, and Calderon represents heavily Hispanic Montebello, where Obama won 88 percent of the vote.

But both men have refused to resign. Wright has said he will appeal the guilty verdict, while Calderon said in a statement last week he would wait for his day in court.

“This is not a resignation since I still have my day in court. However, due to the nature and complexity of the charges, and the discovery materials that I will have to review, I expect this to be a lengthy period of absence continuing until the end of the session in August,” Calderon said in a statement announcing his leave, first reported by the Los Angeles Times.

Both Wright and Calderon have been stripped of their committee assignments. But state Senate President Darrell Steinberg (D) and his caucus have refused to expel them from the Senate.

“Sen. Wright has already left the building. And unless the judge sets aside the jury’s verdict, Sen. Wright will not be coming back,” Steinberg said during last week’s debate. “The integrity of this institution cannot tolerate a convicted felon in its ranks. But at this point in time Sen. Wright is not a convicted felon.”

The debate over expelling Wright came 109 years to the day after the state Senate forcibly removed its last member, the Sacramento Bee reported. On Feb. 27, 1905, the state Senate kicked out four members who had been convicted of bribery.

Reid Wilson covers state politics and policy for the Washington Post's GovBeat blog. He's a former editor in chief of The Hotline, the premier tip sheet on campaigns and elections, and he's a complete political junkie.
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