SACRAMENTO — Democratic state Sen. Roderick Wright on Tuesday was granted a paid leave of absence from his position as he awaits sentencing in May on eight felony counts of perjury and voter fraud, leaving the Democratic supermajority no votes to spare in the upper house.
Wright's decision could hasten Senate action against Sen. Ronald S. Calderon (D-Montebello), who was indicted last week on 24 federal counts involving the acceptance of nearly $100,000 in bribes in exchange for influencing legislation. If Calderon steps away or is expelled, the Democrats would lose their supermajority in the Senate, at least temporarily.
Some lawmakers wanted action taken against Wright, who was convicted, before any action is taken against Calderon, who has been charged but not convicted. But Senate leader Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) said it would be premature to expel Wright before a trial judge affirmed his conviction and sentenced the lawmaker.
Steinberg has given Calderon until Monday to resign or take a leave of absence. Otherwise, Steinberg said, Calderon would face a Senate vote to suspend him.
Wright, for his part, plans to ask a trial judge to overturn a jury's verdict that he lied about living in his Senate district when he ran for office and voted there. Steinberg gave him permission Tuesday to take a leave of absence.
"I've accepted his request and wish him well going forward," Steinberg said in a statement.
The Senate leader has said that he views California's law governing residency requirements for candidates as "ambiguous" but indicated that he would seek Wright's resignation or move to expel him from office if the trial judge confirms the conviction and approves a sentence.
"I hope that Sen. Wright succeeds in his motion before the trial judge," Steinberg told reporters Monday. "If he does not and the trial judge enters the conviction into the record and sentences him, then he can no longer remain a member of the state Senate."
Sen. Joel Anderson of San Diego, one of four Republican lawmakers who have called for Wright's expulsion, objected to the leave of absence.
"I don't believe it is in the best interest of Californians to be granting a paid vacation to a senator found guilty of eight felony counts unanimously by a jury of 12," Anderson said.
Because the leave is voluntary and not imposed by the Senate, Anderson said, Wright could rescind it on a moment's notice and return to the Senate for a key vote.
Prosecutors persuaded a jury that Wright lived in a large house in the upscale Baldwin Hills neighborhood of Los Angeles, outside the district where he ran for office, and not at an address claimed as his residence in Inglewood.
Wright, 61, maintains that he met the standards of residency established by court precedent.
"It is a great honor to represent the people of the 35th Senate District," Wright said in a statement Tuesday. "I remain hopeful that — through due process — I will once again have the opportunity to fight for laws that strengthen our communities and support those most in need."
While on leave, Wright will continue to collect his $95,291 annual salary. The state Constitution does not give the Senate power to withhold pay from a senator, said Mark Hedlund, a spokesman for Steinberg.
However, Wright will not receive the $163 per diem check for each day the Senate is in session because he will not be attending those sessions.
The supermajority that both houses now have in the Legislature allows tax hikes and other matters requiring a two-thirds vote to be passed without Republican support. But John J. Pitney, a political science professor at Claremont McKenna College, noted that a tax increase is less likely in an election year.