Felony allegations cost Democrats in California Senate their supermajority


State Sen. Roderick Wright (D) was convicted Jan. 28 of eight felony counts of voter fraud and perjury. (Rich Pedroncelli/AP)

Two California state senators in legal trouble are taking indefinite leaves of absence from their jobs, rejecting Republicans’ calls for them to resign and costing Democrats their supermajority, at least temporarily.

Last week, Senate Democrats voted down a GOP resolution to expel state Sen. Roderick Wright (D), who was convicted Jan. 28 of eight felony counts of voter fraud and perjury. 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 — began a leave of absence last week to fight the charges. Federal agents raided Calderon’s Sacramento offices in June. He has pleaded not guilty to 24 charges and was released on bond.

Both senators will be paid during their absences.

Democrats control 28 of the 40 seats in the state Senate, a supermajority 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 is at risk. Legislative rules require a supermajority to raise taxes or pass constitutional amendments; Senate Democrats had hoped to pass a tax increase before leaving Sacramento to campaign ahead of the fall midterm elections.

If Wright and Calderon were to quit, Gov. Jerry Brown (D) could call special elections to replace them. 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 legislators have refused to resign. Wright has said he will appeal the guilty verdict, while Calderon said last week that he will 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.

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

“Senator Wright has already left the building. And unless the judge sets aside the jury’s verdict, Senator 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, Senator Wright is not a convicted felon.”

The debate about expelling Wright came 109 years to the day after the state Senate last expelled one of its members, the Sacramento Bee reported. On Feb. 27, 1905, the chamber removed four members who had been convicted of bribery.

Reid Wilson covers national politics and Congress for The Washington Post. He is the author of Read In, The Post’s morning tip sheet on politics.

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