In the only time they have all shared the same stage, state Sen. Leland Yee and his rivals for secretary of state this month attended a Los Angeles forum in which they were asked to invent a hypothetical film about their candidacy.
Yee proposed an “award-winning” biopic about a boy who came to the U.S. when he was 3 years old, knowing no English, and years later got involved in politics against his mother’s wishes. “He wanted not to empower himself, but to empower others,” Yee said.
The ambitious lawmaker’s personal narrative took a jarring turn Wednesday.
The senator who has championed gun-control legislation faces charges that he conspired with gangsters to sell guns. The longtime politician seeking to oversee the churn of political money in California as secretary of state now stands accused of trading official acts for donations in an effort to pay off his campaign debt.
The charges left Senate colleagues in shock. State Sen. Jim Beall, D-San Jose, said he met Yee more than 30 years ago when Yee, a child psychologist, was working with refugees in Beall’s hometown.
“To see this thing happen, is just a total flabbergast to us and to me,” Beall said. “The chairman of the human services committee in the state Senate. A child psychologist working with foster kids. It’s a total shock. I’m extremely sad about it.”
Yet Yee has been viewed as a somewhat isolated legislator during his nearly dozen years in the Assembly and Senate. A refrain Wednesday among people speaking privately was that Yee plays things close to the vest and regularly left his colleagues unsure of his true feelings. The first person of Chinese heritage elected to the Senate, Yee has had little involvement with the Legislature’s Asian Pacific Islander Legislative Caucus.
In one case where colleagues’ frustration became public, Yee refused to join fellow Democrats in 2010 as they grudgingly voted for deep budget cuts during the depths of the recession.
Yee’s move was widely viewed then as designed to boost his candidacy for San Francisco mayor the following year. As punishment, Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg stripped Yee of his post as assistant president pro tem.
“I am more than willing to relinquish this title if that is the price for voting my conscience on the state budget and standing up against severe cuts to education, social services and healthcare,” Yee wrote in an open letter afterward.
Aaron Peskin and Leland Yee served on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors together in 2001. Peskin, who represented Chinatown, said Yee had always been helpful to him even though they were not “of the same sub-political stripe.”
“He was kind of a political loner. He didn’t fit neatly into any grouping,” Peskin said. “The traditional forces of Chinatown, he wasn’t particularly close to.”
Yee also served on the Board of Supervisors with Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom before Newsom became mayor of San Francisco. “It’s sad when anyone in a position of trust is accused of these type of crimes. It’s particularly sad when it’s someone you’ve known for years and years and worked with,” Newsom said.
It was unclear Wednesday how Yee’s arrest would affect the secretary of state’s race in the June primary. Yee raised relatively little money from Jan. 1 through March 17, and trailed well behind Senate colleague Alex Padilla, a Democrat, and independent Dan Schnur in cash on hand.
Veteran political consultant Richie Ross, who has been advising Yee on his candidacy for secretary of state, said he polled the contest less than two weeks ago and that Yee led among Democrats.
“I’ve been doing this for 40 years and I’ve never seen anything like this,” Ross said. “Leland was actually in very good position. I was all, ‘Oh boy!’ He doesn’t need any political advice now. He needs a lawyer.”