Some of my favorite stories of 2014

As 2014 draws to a close, I’ve been ruminating on my favorite political moments of this year – not the most important or impactful ones, perhaps, but the ones that either made me shake my head in amazement, or guffaw out loud, or both.

And so, in no particular order:

Homeless NeelNeel Kashkari takes it to the streets: Republican gubernatorial candidate Neel Kashkari, distrusted by the more conservative elements of his own party, managed to beat out a more right-wing rival to finish second behind Gov. Jerry Brown in June’s top-two primary. In July, he made an inspired attempt to rekindle his unusual momentum (for when was the last time you saw a statewide GOP candidate running on so ardent an anti-poverty platform?) by spending a week “undercover” pretending to be jobless and homeless on Fresno’s streets. I said it then and I still believe it: “You’ve gotta give him credit for cojones. Whether California voters believe the state is worse off under Brown’s stewardship remains to be seen, but this is not something you would’ve seen Meg Whitman, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bill Simon, Dan Lungren or Pete Wilson do in a million years.”

Neel's drowning kidNeel Kashkari drowns himself in hyperbole: Aaaaand then we had the rest of Kashkari’s campaign. Unable to maintain the buzz that his “homeless” stint created, polls shows his campaign on the slide as contributions dried up. In October, he aired a television ad depicting his rescue of a child that Brown had left to “drown” in poor schools. Candidates want people talking about their ads, but if the viewers’ main sentiment is, “Are you freakin’ kidding me?,” you’re probably doing it wrong.

ManoramaManorama K. Joshi (or Manorama J. Kumar): The 17th Congressional District battle between Rep. Mike Honda, D-San Jose, and Democratic challenger Ro Khanna, had a lot of weird moments, but few that rivaled the revelation that Khanna donors and supporters had been instrumental in getting Republican Joel Vanlandingham onto the ballot. It seemed the idea was to dilute the GOP vote that would’ve gone to Republican Vanila Singh, as a means of ensuring Khanna would finish second behind Honda in June’s top-two primary. “No, I don’t want to talk to anybody, thank you,” Joshi replied when I buzzed her Newark apartment. Yeah, I’ll just bet you don’t.

Leland Yee (photo by Karl Mondon)“Uncle” Leland Yee gets pinched: When an editor called me early one morning in late March to tell me state Sen. Leland Yee, D-San Francisco, had been arrested, I could never have anticipated the circumstances. Payoffs and gun trafficking and a Dragon Head named Shrimp Boy… oh, my! The affidavits accompanying the original criminal complaint and the superseding indictment filed in July made for 2014’s most compelling political reading, hands down. And yet Yee finished third in a field of eight candidates for Secretary of State in June’s top-two primary. Seriously, California?

DRAPER map 022514Six Californias comes apart at the seams: Honestly, it took me a while to figure out whether renowned Silicon Valley venture capitalist Tim Draper was serious about his plan to split California into six states, or if he was doing some sort of Andy Kaufmanesque political performance art demonstrating the absurdities enabled by our ballot initiative system. As it turned out, Draper was for real, and so was the $5.2 million he sank into gathering signatures to put his measure on 2016’s ballot. But not enough of the signatures were real, so he blew it, depriving all of us of two years worth of joke-making.


Leland Yee placed 3rd for Sec’y of State. Really.

Leland Yee, the Democratic state Senator from San Francisco indicted by a federal grand jury for allegedly taking bribes and conspiring to broker an international arms deal, finished third in a field of eight candidates for Secretary of State in Tuesday’s primary.

Leland Yee (photo by Karl Mondon)No, really. As of now, 287,590 votes have been counted for Yee – a number that will rise at least slightly as registrars around the state tally the final wave of vote-by-mail and provisional ballots. Yee had announced he was dropping out of the race to be California’s top elections and political transparency watchdog right after he was charged with crimes that could put him in prison for life, but it was too late to remove his name from the ballot.

My first takeaway is that it sucks to be one of the five candidates who came in behind him. I’d call and ask them, but I’ll have mercy; if I were one of them, I’d be hung over for days and not taking calls.

I see a few possible explanations for Yee’s strong finish, and I suppose it’s probably a mix of several:

    1.) Some voters have a perverse sense of humor, and don’t care much who the Secretary of State will be, anyway.
    3.) Some voters live under rocks, without access to the internet, radio, television or newspapers. Then again, he still came in third in San Francisco, where news of his arrest and indictment was practically inescapable.

That point leads to my second takeaway, which is that the real winner in this primary election is James Lassart, Yee’s attorney. He must feel at least a little better today about his future prospects in picking a jury.


State Senate’s ethics review is tomorrow

The state Senate will hold its special ethics review and self-flagellation session Wednesday, following the conviction of one senator and the indictment of two others.

State Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, announced the special day last month; all senators and staffers are required to attend.

The Senate voted 28-1 on March 28 to suspend Sens. Leland Yee, Ron Calderon and Rod Wright. Yee, D-San Francisco, has been indicted for allegedly selling official favors and conspiring 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.

Steinberg’s office says the meetings “will be closed sessions to facilitate frank discussions and candid interactive dialogue among the participants,” though Steinberg and Senate Republican Leader Bob Huff will hold a news conference late Wednesday morning.

The group sessions will include a presentation on “Creating a Culture of Ethics – A National Perspective” by Scott Raecker, CEO of the Josephson Institute of Ethics and executive director of Character Counts at Drake University. The nonprofit Josephson Institute works with corporations, governmental agencies and professionals on strengthening standards of conduct in individual and institutional decision-making.

There will also be a panel discussion of the “Challenges of Legal Ethics in a Legislative Environment” facilitated by three attorneys with expertise in political and campaign issues: Lance Olson of Olson & Hagel, who advises some of the state’s foremost Democrats; Charles Bell Sr. of Bell, McAndrews & Hiltachk, general counsel to the California Republican Party; and John Panneton, a former federal prosecutor. The panel will present hypothetical scenarios that raise potential ethical and legal issues; those scenarios will also be used by senate chiefs of staff, committee chief consultants and office directors as they lead staff discussions in individual Capitol offices later Wednesday.


Spotlighting suspended senators’ money & votes

You might have a harder time finding their legislative histories now, but three state senators who are in trouble with the law are being spotlighted by a Berkeley-based nonprofit that tracks money in politics.

MapLight.org reminded the public Monday that their site makes it easy to find the industries and individuals who have given the most (at least, those who’ve given the most through legal channels) to embattled state senators Leland Yee, D-San Francisco; Ron Calderon, D-Montebello, and Rod Wright, D-Inglewood.

Yee was indicted Friday on six counts of bribery, one county of conspiring to take bribes and one count of conspiring to traffic guns. Calderon was indicted in February on bribery charges. Wright was convicted in January of voter fraud and perjury related to not living in the district he represents.

Here’s a taste of MapLight’s data – lists of the top 10 interests that have given the most to those three senators from 2009 through 2012:

Leland Yee
Public Sector Unions — $81,800
Health Professionals — $54,720
General Trade Unions — $45,103
Insurance — $42,000
Pharmaceuticals & Health Products — $23,528
Gambling & Casinos — $20,100
Telecom Services & Equipment — $18,300
Accountants — $18,100
Real Estate — $16,820
Poultry & Eggs — $15,600

Ron Calderon
Insurance — $92,200
General Trade Unions — $57,600
Pharmaceuticals & Health Products — $38,900
Public Sector Unions — $38,250
Telecom Services & Equipment — $28,747
Health Professionals — $26,600
Real Estate — $24,200
Oil & Gas — $21,950
Electric Utilities — $20,500
Tribal Governments — $17,100

Rod Wright
Insurance — $99,707
General Trade Unions — $81,050
Public Sector Unions — $76,400
Telecom Services & Equipment — $62,989
Tribal Governments — $61,500
Beer, Wine & Liquor — $56,440
Gambling & Casinos — $56,191
Oil & Gas — $54,050
Pharmaceuticals & Health Products — $46,650
Real Estate — $42,900

The state Senate voted 28-1 on March 28 to suspend the three senators, and their official websites were “wiped” over the weekend of their legislative histories, biographies, news releases and so on.

But you can still find a list of bills each has introduced by visiting the state’s legislative information page and typing in their names. And their campaign finance histories are still available through the Secretary of State’s database: Follow these links to Yee, Calderon and Wright.


Legal scandals lead Dems to cancel golf fundraiser

Chalk up one immediate victim of the ethical and legal scandals sullying the state Senate: Golf.

State Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, and Sen. Kevin de Leon, who’ll succeed Steinberg in the top spot at the end of this year, issued a joint statement Tuesday announcing they’ve cancelled this weekend’s Pro Tem Cup – the annual Democratic party fundraiser at which donors give tens of thousands of dollars to join legislative leaders on the links at Torrey Pines in La Jolla – “in light of the very recent and extraordinary breaches of the public trust by three individuals.”

C’mon, guys, SAY THE NAMES! Roderick Wright, D-Inglewood, convicted of voter fraud and perjury; Ron Calderon, D-Montebello, indicted on bribery charges; and Leland Yee, D-San Francisco, charged last week with trading favors for money and conspiring to traffic arms.

So, no golf!

“In its place, we intend to spend this weekend in our districts having an open and public conversation with our constituents about the work ahead for this Legislature and for this state,” Steinberg and de Leon said in their joint statement. “It’s important that our constituents understand that, despite the appalling acts of a few individuals who – on their own – put self-interest ahead of the public interest, the Senators who are here are here to serve, to do the hard, unglamorous work of fixing tough public-policy problems, and – most important – to do it the right way.”

And that means putting the putters away. Steinberg and de Leon said the modern campaign system makes fundraising “an occupational necessity, but Senate Democrats have always prided themselves on doing it ethically, appropriately, and in full adherence to every rule and regulation governing public disclosure.

“The Pro Tem Cup has long been a successful, signature example of this,” they said. “But these are unprecedented times and they demand that we take a step back and take stock of how we all do the people’s business and balance it against the demands of running for office.”

The lawmakers said Senate leadership in coming weeks will conduct a “rigorous review of existing campaign finance laws and our own internal fundraising practices – and make recommendations on where we can improve as a caucus and a state, with a focus on when, where and how we raise campaign dollars and how we increase public transparency.” They’ll also schedule a public hearing to discuss campaign finance “the constitutional limits on reform.”

“Make no mistake: Senate Democrats fully intend to strengthen our productive, progressive majority this election year and have no intention of unilaterally disarming in terms of campaign resources,” Steinberg and de Leon said. “But this is time for a reality check. And, while the Legislature as a whole cannot be held responsible for the bad acts of three individual members, we do bear a high and profound responsibility to do all we can to repair the excruciating breach of public confidence they left behind.”


Gun-rights backers decry Leland Yee’s hypocrisy

Gun-rights advocates are up in arms about state Sen. Leland Yee’s alleged double life – an ardent gun-control advocate in public, while secretly negotiating with purported mobsters to set up international gun deals.

“It appears that Leland Yee is not only an epic gun-control hypocrite, but also exactly the type of truly dangerous gun trafficking criminal who my clients have always urged authorities to throw the book at,” Chuck Michel, West Coast counsel for the National Rifle Association, said Thursday.

Leland YeeYee, D-San Francisco, famously has carried “bullet button” legislation, which would ban a common modification to semi-automatic rifles that lets users quickly swap out their ammunition magazines without running afoul of the state’s assault weapons law. His SB 47 was pulled from consideration last August, a few weeks before the end of the legislative session, but remains pending in the Assembly.

That bill was among eight that made up state Senate Democrats “LIFE Act” gun-control package last year.

“The prevalence of deadly, military-style weapons in our society has resulted in countless tragedies,” Yee said last April. “It is past time to put some common sense laws into place in order to prevent such tragedies in the future. The LIFE Act is a bold step forward in this effort.”

Yee is charged with conspiracy to traffic in firearms without a license and to illegally import firearms, and six counts of scheming to defraud citizens of “honest services.” Each corruption count is punishable by up to 20 years in federal prison and a fine of up to $250,000, while the gun-trafficking count is punishable by up to five years and $250,000. Free on $500,000 bond, Yee is scheduled to return to court Monday.

An FBI affidavit says Yee told an undercover FBI agent he could facilitate big shipments of guns into the country in exchange for campaign contributions. No guns actually changed hands, but Yee accepted a $5,000 contribution from a bogus company set up by the agent as their negotiations continued in a series of face-to-face meetings from January through March 14. At one such meeting, Yee allegedly discussed specific locations in the Philippines and Florida that might be ideal for moving the guns, which he said would include M-16-type automatic rifles.

Consider what Yee said last October when Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed a bill that would’ve classified all semi-automatic rifles with detachable magazines as banned assault weapons.

“California’s Assault Weapons Ban has protected the public for decades,” Yee said at the time. “But we must work to make sure that it is capable of dealing with new threats that face California. In the Governor’s veto message, he spoke of the importance of our gun laws and the need to make sure they are carefully tailored. SB 47 will protect the public while keeping an appropriately narrow scope.”

Lots more, after the jump…
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