Darrell Steinberg took the helm of the state Senate six years ago with the global economy in a meltdown that choked off tax revenue, causing the state budget deficit to balloon to $42 billion.
It took Steinberg and other state leaders four years that included deep service cuts, worker furloughs, tax increases and the improving economy to right the ship of state, only to have a different set of troubles land in his lap. Steinberg watched in frustration as four of his Democratic colleagues were charged with criminal wrongdoing during his tenure as leader.
Viewed by some as a victim of bad timing, the Sacramento Democrat stepped down as Senate president pro tem Wednesday — his 55th birthday — convinced that he was fortunate to have served when he did. “I’m lucky that I was chosen to lead during difficult times,” Steinberg said. “I’m lucky that I never had a boring day.”
Forced by term limits to leave office at the end of this year, Steinberg handed the leadership baton to Sen. Kevin De León (D-Los Angeles). Steinberg can claim numerous accomplishments in a reign that was not without controversy.
He negotiated difficult deals with Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and GOP legislative leaders to balance the budget during the crisis years.
Since then, Steinberg has overseen the restoration of many services as the recession lifted and the budget grew flush again, in part because voters approved a big tax increase in 2012.
“To go from the worst budget crisis in history to healthy surpluses and serial achievements the last two years, that sums it up for me,” Steinberg said.
Sen. Mark Leno (D-San Francisco), who chairs the Senate Budget Committee, called Steinberg “among the best, brightest and most accomplished” state lawmakers he has seen.
Elected to the Assembly in 1998, Steinberg has achieved legislative successes including a series of bills to improve mental health services, topped by his authorship of Proposition 63. The 2004 ballot measure has raised $9.5 billion through a 1% income tax on individual income exceeding $1 million a year to help people suffering from mental illness.
His persistence in pursuing improvements to mental health services baffled some Capitol watchers until an acknowledgment last month by Steinberg’s adult daughter, Jordana, that she has long battled mental illness.
Steinberg had never spoken publicly about the problems his daughter faced. She was 4 years old when he was first elected.
Steinberg has also carried bills over the years to improve foster care, education and healthcare.
This year he won Gov. Jerry Brown’s signature on a bill to make the state initiative process more transparent and worked with Brown to put a revised water bond on the November ballot.
Steinberg faced criticism for his handling of criminal charges filed against four of his colleagues.
Sens. Leland Yee of San Francisco and Ronald S. Calderon of Montebello were hit with federal indictments this year accusing them of public corruption, while Sen. Roderick Wright was convicted in January of lying about living in his district. Sen. Ben Hueso (D-Logan Heights) was arrested in August and charged with misdemeanor drunk driving.
Steinberg was harshly criticized by some Republican senators for refusing to even hold a vote on their proposal to expel Wright after his conviction. Instead, Steinberg pushed for suspensions, the first in state history, for Wright, Yee and Calderon.
Sen. Joel Anderson (R-San Diego) was among Steinberg’s fiercest critics over his handling of the scandals, even though Anderson says he generally has respect for the pro tem.
“I believe he swept it under the rug rather than bringing it into the light, and that only encourages more bad behavior,” Anderson said.
Steinberg said the senators were entitled to due process with “the idea that people are presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty.”
Wright resigned after a judge sentenced him to jail last month.
Steinberg took other steps to lead the Senate through the scandals, ordering all members to undergo new ethics training, directing a revision of the code of conduct and introducing legislation, some of it vetoed by Brown, to toughen ethics rules.
He also had to deal with controversies in recent months that led to the resignations of the Senate sergeant-at-arms and its human services director.
Even admirers who think Steinberg did a good job, including ethics attorney Bob Stern, say the series of scandals probably will leave a smudge on Steinberg’s legacy.
“I think he was an excellent pro tem but ironically he will be known as the pro tem who was there when four of his colleagues were charged with criminal violations,” Stern said.
Steinberg said he plans to join a law firm and form a nonprofit institute to promote improvements to mental health programs. “It’s one of the most under-attended-to issues of our time,” he said.
He also hopes to eventually return to public service, possibly running for state attorney general or mayor of Sacramento.
“I still have the fire, and if it’s the right thing, I would like to have another chapter of public service,” he said.