SACRAMENTO -- State lawmakers in March were on track to earn their highest approval rating in 14 years. And then, in a flash, state Sen. Leland Yee's arrest on charges of taking bribes and running guns derailed them.
The Field Poll was able to precisely detect the shift in the public's attitude because it was nearly halfway through a survey of 1,000 registered voters when Yee was hauled away from his San Francisco home in handcuffs amid allegations he had gangland ties.
For the first time since 2001, the number of Californians who approve of the state Legislature's work exceeded the naysayers, according to a survey of 444 voters conducted just before Yee's arrest on March 26. After he was busted, however, the Legislature's approval rating swung nine points in the negative direction, and experts say it could be a while before the Legislature is able to restore the public trust it squandered overnight.
"These results show that a rise in approval rating is like a soufflé: It collapses easily," said Jack Pitney, a professor of politics at Claremont McKenna College.
The lurid details of Yee's alleged crimes struck a chord and reminded Californians why they hate politicians, Pitney said. After his arrest, the percentage of registered voters who approve of the Legislature dipped from 46 percent to 43 percent, and the proportion of voters who disapprove shot up from 40 percent to 46 percent.
"This would have been a very happy story for the Legislature had the Yee arrest not occurred," said Mark DiCamillo, the Field Poll's director. "That's not the story now."
The public's opinion of state lawmakers had been climbing as Gov. Jerry Brown and the Legislature not only balanced the budget but also began socking away a surplus after years of seeing California become the national poster child for bad fiscal behavior. And even after the criminal cases involving two other state senators burst into the news earlier this year, the Legislature's approval kept climbing.
But Yee's arrest was apparently a pivotal event for many voters.
Joanne Acker, a retired insurance agent from Pleasanton, said the corruption scandals now make her wonder what else is going on in Sacramento that voters don't know about and whether all politicians who seek public office are willing to do "illicit stuff."
"I don't think you can base the overall picture of the Legislature on three people, but it leads voters to lack confidence in the integrity and aims of the people we've elected," said Acker, 67, a Republican. "Are they there for personal gain or the needs of the state?"
Some long-time Capitol observers said they couldn't believe that the sudden shift in public opinion wasn't more dramatic.
Larry Gerston, a political-science professor at San Jose State, said the public may not have digested all the Yee news yet, even though they've been inundated with daily updates. "Often, it takes some time before events of this magnitude sink in," Gerston said. "When Darrell Steinberg moved to suspend all three senators accused of corruption, I think that stopped the slide."
Two days after Yee's arrest, Steinberg, the president pro tem of the Senate, introduced a resolution to suspend Yee and Sens. Ronald Calderon, D-Montebello, and Roderick Wright, D-Inglewood. The Senate overwhelmingly passed the measure after Steinberg previously resisted calls from Republicans to suspend Calderon and Wright.
In January, a Los Angeles jury found Wright guilty of lying under oath about whether his home was in his district, and a month later, Calderon was indicted on charges that he accepted $100,000 in bribes and gifts from undercover FBI agents.
Even though the three disgraced politicians are all Democrats, the party's voters almost seem immune to news about Yee, the poll found. Before Yee's arrest, the Legislature's approval rating among Democrats was 60 percent, and afterward it fell only 2 percentage points to 58 percent.
GOP voters' response to Yee's transgressions was much more dramatic. Lawmakers' disapproval rating among registered Republicans shot up 10 points from 55 percent to 65 percent after Yee's arrest. And there was a seven-point swing among independents.
Voters who associate Sacramento corruption with Democratic candidates could hurt the party's chances of winning close races in November's general election, analysts said.
"The only real good news for Democratic incumbents is that it's April and not October," said Hoover Institution fellow Bill Whalen, chief speechwriter to former Republican Gov. Pete Wilson. "That's a long time for politicians to hope that voters forget about what's been going on."
Fewer than half of the registered voters surveyed by the Field Poll said they're inclined to re-elect their own representatives to the state Assembly, which will hold elections for all 80 seats this fall.
In districts currently represented by Democrats, 45 percent of voters said they plan to re-elect their Assembly member, compared with 32 percent of voters in Republican-held districts. Still, roughly a third of voters in those districts remain undecided and could be swayed as more news about Calderon, Wright and Yee trickles out.
"In a great majority of races this fall, the corruption cases won't make any difference," said Claremont McKenna's Pitney. "Will this shift enough votes in a handful of districts that are competitive? We have to see how much people are thinking about scandal this fall."
According to a new Field Poll, the view of California voters toward their Legislature changed suddenly after state Sen. Leland Yee was arrested on bribery and gun-running charges on March 26.
Just before Lee's arrest: Approve 46 percent, disapprove 40 percent, 14 percent no opinion
After Lee's arrest: Approve 43 percent, disapprove 46 percent, 11 percent no opinion