Ending a career in political office that spanned a dozen years, state Sen. Roderick D. Wright on Monday bowed to pressure from fellow Democrats and said he would resign his seat Sept. 22.
Three days earlier, a Los Angeles judge had sentenced him to 90 days in jail on felony perjury and voting fraud charges for lying about living in his Senate district when preparing to run for the office he won in 2008.
Wright, who was threatened by Senate leaders with an expulsion vote if he did not step down, agreed to resign but asked for a week to say goodbye to his staff and constituents.
“It’s painful,” Wright said in an interview. “At the end of the day, you want to consider what’s the best thing for the house and that was the best thing for the house.”
State law requires candidates for legislative office to live in the district they seek to represent. Wright, who served six years each in the Assembly and Senate, has said previously that he was wrongly convicted. But on Monday he did not want to talk about his guilt or innocence.
“It doesn’t matter what I think at this point. You have to move on with your life,” he said.
Incoming Senate leader Kevin de León (D-Los Angeles) called the Wright case unfortunate and unfair.
“Today is a sad day for both my friend and for California,” De León said in a statement. “Sen. Wright’s prosecution has been unfortunate and, in many ways, unfair. At best, this is an ambiguous law and, in this case, its application has been both arbitrary and selective. But today, Sen. Wright did the right thing for his community and the Senate by resigning from office.”
Wright, 62, was sentenced Friday to the jail time, a lifetime ban from holding future public office, three years probation and 1,500 hours of community service. He was ordered to surrender and begin serving his sentence Oct. 31.
Wright is the first California legislator to resign over a criminal conviction in 20 years. The last lawmaker to quit under such circumstances was state Sen. Frank Hill (R-Whittier), who stepped down in 1994 after being found guilty of extortion, money laundering and conspiracy in a corruption sting known as Shrimpscam, state officials said.
Wright’s resignation triggers a process that gives Gov. Jerry Brown 14 days from his departure to call a special election to fill the remaining two years of Wright’s term in the 35th Senate District seat.
The earliest possible election would be Nov. 25, 2014, with a runoff, if necessary, on Jan. 27, 2015, officials said.
Wright is one of three Senate Democrats who have been charged with felonies and who were suspended with pay in March.
Federal authorities have charged Sens. Leland Yee of San Francisco and Ronald S. Calderon of Montebello with corruption, including allegations that they accepted payments for official favors. Both have pleaded not guilty and are awaiting trial.
On Friday, Wright, who is African American, and some of his supporters suggested that racism played a part in the Inglewood-area lawmaker’s prosecution, conviction and sentencing, on eight felony counts.
“This amounted to a 21st century lynching,” Wright said in a message posted late Friday at his request to members of the West Los Angeles Democratic Club. “They literally redefined the law and retroactively charged me with violating it.”
Asked Monday about the comments, Wright said they speak for themselves, but he downplayed the racial angle.
“White folks got lynched too,” he said. “Lynching was not exclusively a black exercise.”
The jury that convicted Wright was racially diverse. But Democratic Assemblymen Steven Bradford of Gardena also questioned the prosecution of the senator.
In the courthouse Friday, Bradford had asserted, “Currently, five of our colleagues don’t live in their districts and it’s no issue with any of those D.A.'s in any of those counties.”
How many of those are African Americans? Wright attorney Winston Kevin McKesson wanted to know. “None,” Bradford answered.
“Are you seeing a pattern to this?” McKesson asked.
Jane Robison, a spokeswoman for Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey, said Monday: “The law is clear. It applies to everyone. We believe the jury reached the right verdict and the court’s sentence was appropriate.”
Current state Senate leader Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) has called for a review of how California’s candidate residency laws are enforced in different counties.
Within minutes of Wright’s resignation announcement Monday, Bradford and Assemblyman Isadore Hall of Compton announced their candidacies for his seat. The district is safely Democratic, with only 14% of voters registered as Republican.
McGreevy reported from Sacramento, Merl from Los Angeles.