The night Darrell Steinberg was chosen to be the next leader of the California Senate, his campaign consultant, Richie Ross, sent out a flurry of enthusiastic e-mails to people in his political network.
"I am pleased that my 10-year client and friend" has been elected the next Senate president pro tem, Ross wrote, adding that Steinberg's ascension would "be good for the issues we care about." Ross added in one e-mail: "Keep this relationship in mind and feel free to call on me if I can ever be useful."
Ross, a veteran Sacramento operative, denied that he was trading on his relationship with the newly powerful Steinberg to solicit clients.
But one of the state's leading good-government advocates said the e-mails' implications were ethically questionable.
Kathay Feng, executive director of California Common Cause, said she was not surprised that a consultant might "try to drum up business in whatever way they can."
But after being read the contents of the e-mails, Feng said: "The idea that a consultant might be providing special access concerns me. . . . There shouldn't be a special channel to Darrell Steinberg, and it was wrong to suggest that somebody can provide that special channel."
In an interview, Ross said he had merely been trying to tell people in his circle, mostly union activists and Democratic politicians who are not familiar with the Capitol's inner workings, that Steinberg shared many of their political values.
For example, Ross said, "A lot of people didn't know Darrell did Prop. 61," the successful 2004 initiative that increased funding for mental health services.
But, he said, people who know about his relationship with Steinberg have "come to me with healthcare issues."
"There has never been a single example, not once, where I've gotten involved in influence-peddling," Ross said, adding that he personally lobbies only on farmworker legislation.
His firm, Ross Communications, is registered to lobby the Legislature for seven clients: two Indian tribes, two unions, the city of Livingston, the association of children's hospitals and the association of lawyers who represent injured workers.
Steinberg, a Democrat from Sacramento, disputed Ross' characterization of their relationship Wednesday.
"I would say Richie's a friend," he said in an interview. "But client -- it's not technically accurate, because I have not employed a consultant since the 2006 elections."
And he said he would not continue the recent practice of Democratic legislative leaders in the capital relying heavily on their political consultants for strategic advice -- relationships that have enriched the consultants by bringing them clients.
"Consultants, Richie included -- they run terrific campaigns, and he's helped me very much in my campaigns," Steinberg said. "But when you take office, that's not the campaign. I run my office."
Both the current Senate president, Don Perata (D-Oakland), and Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez (D-Los Angeles) have ensured that their campaign consultants play major -- often lucrative -- roles in candidate races and initiative fights.
Gale Kaufman, who advises Nunez, and Sandra Polka, who works for Perata, ran two of the four initiative campaigns in 2006 to win approval for public works bonds approved by the Legislature. Kaufman also ran this year's unsuccessful campaign for Proposition 93, the term limits changes that would have allowed Nunez and Perata to run for office again rather than be forced out of their positions.
Ross' e-mails came as a political vacuum has formed in Sacramento.
Three of the four legislative leaders must leave office this year because of term limits. The coming turnover is already reverberating throughout the political establishment, revising the capital's political atlas as lobbyists, fundraisers, consultants and staffers jockey for the trust and ear of the new leaders.
Dan Schnur, an experienced GOP consultant, said the e-mails were no surprise in that fiercely competitive environment.
"Richie's not usually quite as subtle as the next guy," Schnur said, "but the intent of letting the capital community know where you are and where you stand isn't unusual at all."