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.
The Senate voted 28-1 on Friday to suspend Sens. Leland Yee, Ron Calderon and Rod Wright. Yee, D-San Francisco, was charged Wednesday with six felony counts of selling official favors and one count of conspiracy to traffic in firearms without a license and to illegally import firearms. Calderon, D-Montebello, was indicted last month on bribery charges. Wright, D-Inglewood, was convicted in January of voter fraud and perjury related to not living in the district he represents.
Months before his indictment, Calderon claimed federal authorities leaked information about him only after he refused to wear a wire to record conversations with Steinberg and his likely successor as president pro tem, Kevin de Leon, D-Los Angeles. Steinberg responded that Calderon's accusation came as retaliation for being stripped of his committee assignments -- and said federal prosecutors had told him and de Leon that they were potential witnesses but not targets.
Few put stock in Calderon's claim, given Steinberg's squeaky-clean reputation through eight years in the Senate, six years in the Assembly and six years on Sacramento City Council.
For weeks, he refused to allow votes on suspending Wright and Calderon, who had taken paid leaves of absence. But the case against Yee broke the camel's back. Steinberg not only called Friday's vote but also introduced a bill to amend the state constitution so the suspended lawmakers' salaries can be cut off.
He said Friday he'll cancel an April floor session so Senate officials can go office-by-office to emphasize ethical conduct and ask staffers to report any unethical or potentially criminal activity.
Two days earlier, fellow Democrats roundly praised Steinberg as he urged Yee to resign.
State Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, acknowledged every allegation reflects poorly upon all of them. "So it is our good fortune that the leader of this house is an example of a pillar of integrity: Darrell Steinberg sets a tone, we all respond to that," Leno said.
De Leon said nothing Steinberg does "enables or creates the conditions for this type of behavior."
"He has led this great institution with grace and with dignity," de Leon said. "We have three individuals who have this dark cloud over them at the moment ... three adults who are responsible at the end of the day for their own actions."
Steinberg defended himself that day, too: "You can say many things about me that are critical, but leading in anything other than an ethical way is not one of them -- it's my stock in trade, it's what I do."
Watching Steinberg on television, Jeffe said, "The first thing that came to my mind was that he looked so disgusted, so sour about the whole thing, so frustrated -- it's nothing he ever thought he'd ever have to deal with."
But if Steinberg runs for mayor in Sacramento in 2016 or for any other office, Jeffe said, foes might ask, "How could he be so unobservant, so un-in-charge," or worse yet, 'What did he know and when did he know it?'
"He could be collateral damage."