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February 27, 2014
Editorial: Political theater can be good for the soul

Steinberg_mental_illness.JPG(Feb. 27 - By the Editorial Board)

Republicans' effort in the California Senate on Thursday morning to kick out a convicted colleague didn't go anywhere, though no one really expected it would. The senators needed a two-thirds vote to expel Sen. Rod Wright from the Legislature, following his conviction of perjury for lying when he claimed to live in his Inglewood district. That wasn't going to happen even if Republicans did manage to force a vote.

Instead, Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg had the bill sent to committee, where it can die a slow and uneventful death. But not before he chided the three Republican senators who brought the bill for wasting time with this "political circus," as the august body prepared to vote on drought legislation.

And not before engaging in some political theater himself, throwing in a number of made-for-TV moments, including quoting the New Testament about sin and stone throwing, a knock on Republican senators who along with about half the Senate have faced questions about whether they broke the residence rules. With a flourish, Steinberg gave his word that Wright - who took an indefinite leave of absence Tuesday pending a May sentencing - would not be back in Senate chambers until and unless his conviction is overturned by a judge.

"Senator Wright has left the building and he will not be coming back," Steinberg said.

It would have been a spectacular show indeed if Wright had been on the Senate floor, or if Ron Calderon, the other senator in trouble with the law at the moment and facing Senate punishment, had shown up.

Steinberg's assertion that political theater is a waste of time, however, is dead wrong. In fact, putting on the occasional show dramatizes some of the underlying dynamics of the legislative body that the public rarely gets to see.

Thursday, for example, you could get a sense of the collective frustration felt by those in the diminished ranks of the Senate's GOP when Sen. Joel Anderson pleaded emotionally to be allowed a vote on the expulsion bill, though he surely knew that the Democratic-controlled Senate would follow Steinberg's lead.

"Don't hide behind substitute motions," Anderson said, challenging senators, adding later, almost sullenly: "You guys are the supermajority; you can do anything you want."

That power includes blocking legislation from the minority party, a fact that doesn't always get a starring role as it did Thursday.

A fruitless attempt, true, but not a waste of time.

Did U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz and his quixotic, marathon filibuster speech in September stop the rollout of Obamacare? No. Did Wendy Davis' 11-hour filibuster a few months earlier stop the Texas Legislature from approving abortion restrictions? No. Though they did not accomplish a legislative goal, Davis and Cruz sparked public debate about and examination of important topics.

Residence rules might seem frivolous to members of the California Senate, but they are not silly to the public. Breaking the law and lying about it is important and deserves a spotlight. In the end, the senators earned their $141.86 tax-free per diem, and the public got a show.