The American wit Oscar Levant famously defined “chutzpah” as “that quality which enables a man who has murdered his mother and father to throw himself on the mercy of the court as an orphan.”
His description came to mind as a Los Angeles jury last week convicted Democratic State Senator Roderick C. Wright of eight felonies. With shameless audacity, he not only declined to resign his office but also promptly introduced legislation aimed at reducing his crimes to misdemeanors.
As a political matter, this splendid display of chutzpah sends a signal to ordinary folks that Sacramento political elites live by a different set of rules, protected by their own. While Wright’s offenses are somewhat less drastic than Levant’s matricide, he nevertheless continues to receive a taxpayer-funded $90,526 salary, plus benefits, sits on committees, and votes on legislation affecting more law-abiding Californians.
“This is certainly a betrayal of trust that casts a shadow over the whole institution,” said Santa Barbara Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson. “The public demands that we be truthful in our dealings and in our actions.”
Wright, who represents the 35th Senatorial District, including Compton, Hawthorne, and Watts in southern L.A. County, was found guilty last month of eight counts of perjury and vote fraud, when the jury found him guilty of lying about his place of residence on election documents and ballots he cast in five elections.
His false statements asserted under penalty of perjury that he lived in Inglewood, within his district, when he actually lived outside it, in upscale Baldwin Hills. Unlike members of Congress, state legislators are required to live in the areas they represent; the failure to do so legally is not inconsequential: Wright could face up to eight years in prison when he is sentenced next month.
Shrugging off demands for his resignation by the Sacramento Bee and the Los Angeles Times, Wright returned from sentencing to introduce Senate Bill 929, a measure to allow some nonviolent felons (including Wright) to petition a judge to have their crimes reduced to misdemeanors.
To his credit, Senate President and fellow Democrat Darrell Steinberg swiftly put the kibosh on the bill. He also removed Wright from chairmanship of the Governmental Organization Committee, overseeing juicy matters like alcohol, gambling, and horseracing, which generate substantial campaign donations. However, Steinberg says he won’t take further action, at least until after Wright’s March 12 sentencing; even then, he may not act to remove Wright from the senate — it requires a two-thirds vote to do so — because Wright plans to appeal, raising the scenario of a publicly financed felon serving in the legislature for several years, as his case works its way through the courts.
Confronted by this gnarly situation, the other 38 members of the senate immediately did nothing. No calls for resignation, no motions to expel, not even a cheesy vote for censure.
Part of the reason for the see-no-evil attitude is that the law-governing place of residence for members is a politically delicate issue that hits a little, well, too close to home. Jackson noted that filing charges against an elected official is a matter of local discretion for county DAs and said there were several former and current legislators who did the same thing as Wright and were not charged.
“I’m not condoning what he did, but there are other members who do this as well, and the law frankly is a little unclear,” said Jackson, who recently was appointed chair of the senate Judiciary Committee.
Steinberg’s position that the senate should wait to take further action on Wright’s status until his sentencing merely delays an inevitable decision on whether Democrats will act against one of their own party.
Asked if she would sponsor a measure to remove Wright from the senate if his sentence is affirmed, Jackson demurred, “We should wait for next steps pending the judgment,” she said. “When the judge affirms the verdict, other steps should be taken. Additional sanctions is something we could and should discuss.”
The position of some other Sacramento players is considerably less nuanced.
“Senator Wright should resign — like right now,” wrote Jon Fleischman, conservative Republican editor of the influential FlashReport website. “But clearly that is not his plan … in the absence of Wright voluntarily going, there should be a removal vote taken today. If not, a Senator should make the motion, and then let’s see who votes for and against it. At least then there is transparency — and maybe a glimmer of hope that the Senate doesn’t feel that it is above the law after all.”