Leland Yee: Championing the powerless is not easy
State senator says his approach is 'very different'
The Declaration of Independence declares the equality of individuals and that "governments are instituted" to secure rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
One member of California's government, Sen. Leland Yee, D-San Francisco — and Woodside and Portola Valley — has, over his years in the state Legislature, built a substantial claim to securing rights for a particular set of individuals: children, the poor and the disabled.
Sen. Yee, 62, is a native of China who with his mother emigrated at the age of 3 to the United States. He has a doctorate in child psychology from the University of Hawaii and practiced for 20 years, particularly with socio-economically disadvantaged children. He is a former San Francisco supervisor and was a state Assemblyman from 2003 to 2006, when he was elected to the Senate. His current term expires in 2014.
In a recent interview in a booth in a Millbrae cafe, Sen. Yee, who has declared himself a candidate for mayor of San Francisco, talked about his legislative career in Sacramento.
By his account, being a champion of the powerless has not been easy.
Being a legislator
"It's very easy to be a legislator," he said. Just leave the hard work to lobbyists who, he said, greet legislators at the beginning of a session with one message: "You just sit back and relax."
The lobbyists, he said, will do all the legwork in preparing bills, including research, writing, finding sponsors, and conferring with members and the governor's office.
"We tend not to do (our legislation like) that," he said. "We're very different."
Sen. Yee and his staff write their own bills based on their own analysis and their own "life experience," he said. They also do their own lobbying and their own search for outside sponsors, when necessary.
Such sponsors can "give a bill clout" and improve its chances in committee, said Adam Keigwin, the senator's chief of staff, in a phone interview. Among Sen. Yee's regular sponsors: Faculty and student organizations and psychological and psychiatric associations.
"I am the senator," Sen. Yee said, "but we try to be fair to everyone on the staff and give everyone a stake (in the outcome). It's extremely difficult, a lot of work, but to me it's extremely refreshing."
His office's fact sheets and press releases are written in his office and not by outsiders. "Some sponsors don't like that," Mr. Keigwin noted.
Asked about the condition of the Legislature, Sen. Yee said that while it is structurally sound, it is somewhat dysfunctional, in part due to term limits. Those limits do address the arrogance of power, but they create another problem.
Some members depend on lobbyists and legislative staff to the extent that they are asking "what to do and sometimes how to think, and that is wrong," Sen. Yee said.
"The worst situation is in the Assembly," he said, where the lengthy legislative process gives members only until mid-February to introduce their bills. "That is the bill package that you are going to be using (for re-election)," he said. "If you don't have your act together, you're going to be in deep trouble."
A better term limit might combine the Assembly's six-year limit and the Senate's eight for a legislator to use as he or she sees fit, he said.
With Sen. Yee's focus on the disempowered, where does that leave industry-backed bills? "Those bills we don't do," Sen. Yee said. "Those with power get more power. Those with money get more money. On a bill that helps business at the expense of consumers, I know where I'm going to go and it's not toward the business. ... For me, it's like David and Goliath."
His legislative history tends to split along party lines. Some bills that have become law include:
• A 2004 set of rules instructing merchants how to provide information on video game violence ratings. The entertainment industry argued for self-regulation.
• A 2010 requirement that youths wear helmets when downhill skiing and snowboarding, and for resorts to post appropriate signs. This law is dormant because Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed a companion bill requiring ski resorts to develop and publish safety plans. The resort industry expressed concerns over liability and enforcement responsibilities.
• A 2010 whistleblower protection act allowing employees at state universities to seek damages in court if they experience retaliation for reporting illegal or improper actions. Such protections already exist for other state employees.
"I like whistleblowers," Sen. Yee said. "Power tends to be a strong breeding ground for arrogance. Whistleblowers, for me, are heroes. They have made a conscientious effort and jeopardized their careers and jeopardized their safety. ... That is how a democracy grows to become even stronger."
The safety of domestic violence victims is another concern. In San Mateo County in 2008, Sen. Yee took on District Attorney Jim Fox and Steve Wagstaffe, Mr. Fox's successor, when prosecutors threatened a domestic violence victim with jail if she did not testify in open court.
"To go and re-victimize (the plaintiff) is a horrible thing to do," Sen. Yee said. The DA should find other evidence to make its case, he said.
Sen. Yee's bill, which became law, extends to domestic violence victims the existing prohibitions against such incarceration for victims of sexual assault.
Asked to comment, Mr. Wagstaffe said he did not disagree with Mr. Yee's motives. But with the change in the law, abusers now have leverage: a promise of good behavior can persuade victims not to testify, he said.
There have since been a few times, Mr. Wagstaffe said, when prosecutors have had to resort to plea bargains; cases have been dismissed for lack of evidence. Victims' statements to police are inadmissible in court, he said.
In mid-September 2010, Sen. Yee occupied the No. 2 position in the leadership of the Senate as assistant president pro tem. By mid-October, he had been demoted by the Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento.
Sen. Yee's offense, he said, had been his "no" vote on the state budget in protest of proposed cuts to public education and services to the poor.
"Basically, the decision was to get rid of the position for efficiency purposes," said Mark Hedlund on behalf of Sen. Steinberg. "The position didn't exist before (Sen. Yee occupied it) and was created for him some time ago."
Asked to comment, Sen. Yee's chief of staff Adam Keigwin noted that former Sen. Jackie Speier once held the position. "That was the first I've heard of the 'efficiency' line," he added. "I think everyone knows why it happened. Sen. Yee thought voting his conscience was more important."
"I don't need anyone to tell me how to think," Sen. Yee told the Almanac. "Any elected official should be able to analyze (a situation) and come to his own conclusion."
"You cannot be the largest state in the union and supposedly a world-class economy and be 47th in spending on public education," he said. "What are we going to do? Keep cutting until we're last?"
"My goal was to say, 'Wait a minute. You can't be cutting education and services to the poor and the disabled,'" he said. "We Democrats should be representing certain values. Holding up the budget was to wake up everybody that we're doing some very harmful things to the people of California."
The Arc of San Francisco, a nonprofit resource for disabled people, nominated Sen. Yee for a "Profile in Courage" award for his budget vote.
For decades, a two-thirds majority in the Senate and Assembly was needed to pass the state budget. The Republicans, a longtime minority in both houses, would regularly hold up budget passage in protracted negotiations. No more. With voter approval of state Proposition 25 on Nov. 2, a simple majority can pass a budget.
Voters also approved Proposition 26, which requires a two-thirds majority vote in the Legislature to pass a fee levied on a business to ameliorate an impact by that business on society or the environment.
"We (were) under the thumb of a minority," Sen. Yee said about the two initiatives. "(The voters) are going to give us the power to do our jobs but they're also going to watch us closely."
The pendulum is swinging. Proposition 13, approved by voters in 1978, slashed local government's authority to raise property taxes, in part because people on fixed incomes were being threatened with the loss of their homes, Sen. Yee said.
"There was a loud cry for some modification. (Legislators) just didn't hear it," he said. "You had individuals who took advantage of that and went too far. (Prop 13) has crippled the ability of our government to provide for our children, the disabled and the poor, and I think that's wrong."