It was the gun-running that floored me. The favors in exchange for campaign contributions? Plausible. An envelope full of cash in exchange for assistance lobbying his colleagues on behalf of a marijuana enterprise? Not inconceivable. But helping to organize a scheme to buy guns from rebel groups in the Philippines to sell in the United States? That was just nuts.
Of course, some folks have barely been able to conceal their glee at State Senator Leland Yee’s fall. Over at BeyondChron, Randy Shaw treated Yee’s arrest and indictment as belated confirmation of his own long-held contempt for the Senator and vindication for Shaw’s allies, longtime Yee antagonists Willie Brown and Rose Pak. “Leland Yee,” Shaw wrote, “enjoyed a remarkable political run. And having watched him get away with so much for decades, I was only surprised that he was finally caught.”
Tom Ammiano’s posted reaction on his Facebook page frankly resonated more strongly with me. Ammiano, who had grown estranged from Yee in the years since they served together on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, wrote: “Oy Leland, we were thrown together by the ever shifting seismic plates of San Francisco’s political landscape, voted onto the school board by constituencies hungry for change. We became comrades, brothers of a sort, we learned much from each other. The gulf is wider now, by years, and transitions, betrayals, and the what not of personal/political relationships. I still can’t forget the glimpse of your core that many of us related to. Your family is in our thoughts.” Classy Tom.
One of the more striking responses to Yee’s humiliation was that of Chronicle editorial page editor John Diaz (“Sen. Leland Yee case illustrates culture of corruption,” April 4, 2014), who placed Yee’s indictment in the
context of the recent corruption scandals that ensnared fellow Senators Ron Calderon and Roderick Wright and suggested that the accusations against these Senators only scratch the surface of a broader, deeper
corruption that is endemic throughout our political system.
“This is how I explain it to my students,” Diaz quoted political strategist, college professor and candidate for Secretary of State Dan Schnur. “It’s perfectly legal for a legislator to say to a special interest: ‘I’m deciding whether or not to vote for your bill. My, what a beautiful sunset tonight. By the way, are you coming to my fundraiser tomorrow? As long as the politician mentions the sunset between those two subjects…he’s in the clear.”
That the Yee arrest should be followed less than a week later by the Supreme Court’s decision in McCutcheon v. FEC was a particularly bitter irony. Building on the logic of the 2010 Citizens United decision, which had rejected any limits on the amounts wealthy individuals or corporations can spend on independent efforts to help their candidate win an election, McCutcheon eliminated the maximum aggregate amounts that any individual donor can contribute to candidates and party committees over a two-year period.
Although Citizens United and McCutcheon leave in place, for now, the individual contribution limits on amounts donors can directly contribute to a candidate, taken together they pretty much destroy the logic and structure of nearly four decades of campaign finance reforms.
The Supreme Court’s decisions rest on two basic principles: 1) campaign contributions are constitutionally-protected speech, and 2) the only legitimate public interest in regulating such contributions is in eliminating the type of quid-pro-quo corruption of which Yee is accused.
Meanwhile, in Washington, the credit card companies re-write our bankruptcy laws, big agribusiness safeguards its subsidies while the food stamp program is gutted, and corporations and wealthy individuals protect their tax loopholes while our nation’s infrastructure crumbles. In Sacramento, the oil lobby keeps California from enacting an oil extraction tax, while the landlord and realtor lobbies kill tenant protection legislation and ensure the displacement of more and more middle and low-income families from the State’s most expensive real estate markets. And in San Francisco, developer campaign contributions beget access to land use decisions that are routinely based on “who you know” rather than what’s good for the City.
As Justice Stephen Breyer — a San Francisco native, don’t you know — wrote in his McCutcheon dissent: “Taken together with Citizens United, today’s decision eviscerates our Nation’s campaign finance laws, leaving a remnant incapable of dealing with the grave problems of democratic legitimacy that those laws were intended to resolve.” And that frankly seems to me a far graver violation of the public trust that anything little old Leland Yee could have done. Maybe even worse than gun-running.
Rafael Mandelman was elected to the San Francisco Community College Board of Trustees in 2012. He is a partner at Burke, Williams & Sorensen, LLP.