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California Democrats avert move to oust convicted state senator

By Sharon Bernstein

SACRAMENTO, California (Reuters) - Democratic lawmakers in California deflected a Republican resolution on Thursday calling for the expulsion of a state senator who was convicted of eight felonies, a move Republicans say was aimed at preserving Democrats' two-thirds majority.

Democratic State Senator Roderick Wright, who represents parts of Los Angeles and the suburb of Inglewood, was convicted last month of voter fraud and perjury after prosecutors said he did not physically live in the district he represented.

Earlier this week, Senate leader Darrell Steinberg granted him a paid leave of absence, saying that although a jury had found Wright guilty, the judge had not yet formally endorsed the verdict.

After Knight and two other Republicans objected, Steinberg said he would hear their resolution to expel Wright if it came to the senate floor. When the resolution came up on Thursday, Steinberg did allow debate.

But, in a move that angered some Republicans, he and most Democrats then voted to move it to the Senate's rules committee, where it is expected to languish.

"The Senate should be afforded the opportunity to expel a member who has violated legal and ethical boundaries," said Republican Steve Knight, who represents desert and suburban communities north of Los Angeles. "Anything else does a disservice to California voters."

Steinberg defended the move before the vote, calling the Republican resolution "political theater, pure and simple."

"Here we are spending the peoples' time, today, on a resolution that would make zero practical difference on the status quo as it stands today," he said.

For the past year, Democrats have controlled both houses of the state legislature as well as the governorship in California, with large "super-majorities" that allow them to raise taxes and take other actions that require a two-thirds vote.

But Democrats could at least temporarily lose two seats in the Senate currently held by Wright and by Ron Calderon, who is under pressure to step down after his recent indictment on corruption charges. Should both lawmakers be unseated, Democrats would be one vote short of a two-thirds majority.

"It has been suggested by some in this chamber, and some commentators, that a leave of absence is a tactical maneuver to assure that Senator Wright or Senator Calderon could be brought back to cast a deciding vote under our vaunted super-majority," Steinberg said before the vote. "That is insulting.

"I give you my word on this floor - and when has my word not been good? This will not happen," Steinberg said.

Wright's lawyer, Winston McKesson, said Wednesday that the senator planned to ask the judge to reject the verdict, arguing that the jury did not properly apply state law defining a domicile for the purpose of running for political office.

(Reporting by Sharon Bernstein; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Cynthia Osterman)

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