State Capitol, Sacramento (David Paul Morris/Getty Images).
State Capitol, Sacramento (David Paul Morris/Getty Images).

It’s been more than a week and a half since state Sen. Roderick Wright was convicted on eight felony counts for living outside the district he represents, but the Los Angeles County Democrat still holds his Senate seat.

That’s despite the fact California law prohibits convicted felons from holding office. Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg argues Wright doesn’t officially become a felon until a judge enters a formal conviction at a sentencing hearing, and says he won’t push the embattled lawmaker to step down until that point.

“He has not been fully and finally convicted,” Steinberg said last week.

That decision has now become a political flashpoint.

Earlier this week, three Republican lawmakers urged Steinberg to hold an expulsion vote.  “The fact remains that felony convictions have been handed down from a jury upon a member of the Senate,” said the letter signed by Steve Knight, Andy Vidak and Joel Anderson. “Whether an appeal is granted by a judge or not is irrelevant to the fact that a vote of this body should be granted by leadership.”

“We have a convicted felon of not just one count — of eight counts,” said Knight. “And one of those counts is perjury. And the membership does not get a say in the matter. The membership just has to sit there and wait.”

Wright’s decision to stay until his mid-March hearing is becoming a campaign issue, too. Independent Secretary of State candidate Dan Schnur is pushing the two Senate Democrats running for that office, Leland Yee and Alex Padilla, to support an expulsion vote.  “And if they’re not willing to stand up and lead the effort to remove a convicted felon from their ranks in the state Senate,” Schnur said, “at the very least they ought to stand up and explain their reasons why they’re not willing to do that.”

Yee dismissed Schnur’s call as a “publicity stunt.”

‘It’s Apples and Oranges’

The day after Steinberg publicly defended Wright’s right to remain in the Senate, the lawmaker embarrassed the Democratic leader by unveiling a bill that would allow nonviolent felons — like himself — to request that their sentences be reduced to misdemeanors.

Steinberg quickly shot that bill down. “Wrong senator, wrong time,” Steinberg spokesman Rhys Williams told the Associated Press.

But Steinberg continues to back Wright’s decision to remain through March.

The leader’s stance is a departure from how the Democratic leader has handled other recent scandals. After a leaked FBI affidavit accused Democratic Sen. Ron Calderon of accepting bribes, Steinberg booted Calderon off his committee assignments.

Calderon hasn’t been charged with a crime, but Wright is still sitting on committees. (Wright did voluntarily step down from his committee chairmanships.)

Steinberg says alleged bribery is more serious than whether or not a lawmaker lives in a district. “These are two very different situations,” he said. “The underlying conduct is very different. The legal status is very different. And so it’s apples and oranges, to use the cliche.”

In a statement, Calderon said the disparity is “just another indicator that I have been and continue to be unfairly targeted and retaliated against.”

Wright didn’t return calls for comment.


Scott Detrow

Sacramento bureau chief Scott Detrow covers state government, politics and policy for KQED News and its statewide news program, The California Report.

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