California Democrats intent on damage control after Leland Yee arrest

Leland Yee, a veteran lawmaker charged with political corruption and gun-trafficking crimes, is suspended from the California Senate, costing Democrats their supermajority. How big will the ripple effect be?  

Ben Margot/AP
California state Sen. Leland Yee (D) leaves the San Francisco Federal Building in San Francisco, March 26, 2014. Yee, arrested last week, faces federal charges related to conspiracy to traffic in firearms without a license and accepting campaign funds in exchange for political favors.

The stunning arrest and subsequent suspension from the California Senate of veteran politician Leland Yee (D) will alter the balance of power in California politics, boosting the influence of Republicans in the state capital and eroding, at least temporarily, Democratic dominance in the very blue Golden State.

But whether the Democrats' retrenchment lasts will depend on how closely California voters are paying attention – and how long their memories are, political analysts say.

Senator Yee, arrested last week after a five-year FBI sting operation, faces federal charges related to conspiracy to traffic in firearms without a license and accepting campaign funds in exchange for political favors. His Senate colleagues voted Friday to suspend him. A Los Angeles Times headline read, “Even old hands are stunned by Yee allegations.”

“If there ever has been a more nauseating corruption scandal in Sacramento, I’m not aware of it. Certainly not in the past 50 years,” writes Times political columnist George Skelton. “The notion of a legislator masquerading as a gun control crusader while offering to help a mobster traffic in automatic rifles and rocket launchers is beyond hypocrisy. It’s sick.”

The immediate consequence is that Yee's suspension – along with two other recent suspensions of Democratic senators over different matters – shifts the power balance in the legislature by removing the Senate supermajority enjoyed by Democrats. That means Democrats now will need at least some GOP support to approve their initiatives, which currently range from an $11 billion water bond measure to creating a budgetary rainy-day fund to raising taxes on oil companies.

Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a senior fellow at the School of Policy, Planning, and Development at the University of Southern California, says that if she were advising Democrats, she would simply say, “don’t bring up any major issues for now.” 

Longer term, the Yee case may fuel anti-incumbent sentiment among voters in this year's elections, possibly giving Republican candidates a boost after years of experiencing a steady ballot-box decline.

“The Yee saga represents a potential political earthquake that California goes through about every 10 to 15 years,” says David McCuan, a political scientist at Sonoma State University. “To wit ... 2003 and the recall of Governor [Gray] Davis and the rise of Arnold Schwarzenegger.”

Others don't see the consequences as that large. 

“The Yee scandal could give Republicans a talking point that could help them win a couple of marginal Democratic seats,” says Jack Pitney, professor of government at Claremont McKenna College. “If that happens, Democrats will need GOP votes for any measure requiring a supermajority. Republicans will regain a bit of relevance.”

The size of the ripple effect will depend on yet-to-emerge details about the Yee case, and on whether voters are paying attention, analysts say. That usually means short-term damage but a longer-term reprieve.

“The Yee case involves a respectable person doing unspeakable things with garish criminals. It's a mix of 'Breaking Bad,' 'House of Cards,' and 'The Wire,' ” says Mr. Pitney. “People pay attention, which is why the suspensions followed so fast" after Yee's arrest.

At least one Republican is not banking on a backlash from Democratic voters in California to upend politics as usual.

“All it will mean in the short term is that …now if Democrats want to get legislation passed they need to get the support of some Republicans for the legislation,” says Gary Aminoff, vice chairman of the Republican Party of Los Angeles County. “I think it might help get some Republicans elected to the legislature this year, but by 2016 it will be all but forgotten by voters.”

The scandal could affect the race for California secretary of state because Yee, who could not run again for state Senate because of term limits, had been a candidate prior to his arrest.

“This could affect the secretary of state race,” says Mr. McCuan, noting that the need for political reform could return as a big issue just as California marks the 40th anniversary of its path-breaking Political Reform Act, which was enacted after the Watergate scandal. Dan Schnur, a former GOP operative running for that office as an Independent, could use the Yee case as leverage, McCuan says.

It may also affect Asian-American voters and political candidates, says Ms. Jeffe, noting that Betty Yee, who is running for state controller, could see her campaign suffer by name association.

“It will be interesting to see if [Asian candidates and voters] are motivated more or less to participate in politics by this,” says Jeffe.

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