Darrell Steinberg

By Josh Richman and Jessica Calefati
Staff writers
Posted: 03/31/2014 06:00:11 AM PDT
Updated: 03/31/2014 06:00:21 AM PDT

SACRAMENTO — When Darrell Steinberg succeeded Don Perata as the state Senate’s leader in 2008, many Capitol observers believed it would usher in a new era of political ethics.

Now, as his time in the Senate draws to a close at the end of this year, Steinberg, 54, presides over a chamber in ethical ruins, with three fellow Democrats suspended as they face felony criminal charges — ranging from voter fraud to bribery to conspiring to illegally import automatic weapons.

It sounds a bit like when Steinberg took over. At the time, the FBI hadn’t yet finished its five-year investigation into whether Perata, an Oakland Democrat, took kickbacks from associates and donors; neither he nor anyone else was ever charged, but the probe cast a cloud. Meanwhile, Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez was being pilloried for living luxuriously on his donors’ money.

So as Steinberg, D-Sacramento, and Assemblywoman Karen Bass, D-Los Angeles, took their respective chambers’ reins, political analyst Barbara O’Connor called them “the perfect duo to restore faith in the process … people who’ll do their business in a conscientious and ethical way.”

It didn’t turn out that way. And Steinberg’s failure to lead a more ethical Senate says a lot about the limits of power in Sacramento — both Steinberg’s personal power, and the clout of California’s legislative leaders generally in the modern era.

Expectations were high, said Steve Boilard, executive director of Sacramento State’s Center for California Studies, “and I think he was well cut-out symbolically for this job, being an honest and ethical guy — but there are limitations to what leadership can do.”

Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a veteran political analyst at the University of Southern California, said Steinberg “would have to be a stronger leader than the institution would allow today” to exert enough pressure to keep everyone in line.

“If you fight so hard to get the position, are you going to throw it away by going around the chamber and smacking a ruler on everybody’s hands?” she asked rhetorically.

Jeffe said term limits and other pressures mean no lawmaker has time anymore “to accrue the chips that allow you to be that strong a leader” like a Jesse Unruh or a Willie Brown — the latter of whom himself was investigated by the FBI, though never charged.

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