When state Sen. Leland Yee, D-San Francisco, was suspended from the legislature in late March after his arrest on federal corruption and arms trafficking charges, it was unclear exactly how the sudden exit of a perennial political adversary of the University of California would impact higher education in the state.
Yee represented a consistent and formidable thorn in the side of the UC system for years, frequently positioning himself at odds with the university’s publicly stated legislative priorities. His outspoken criticisms of UC policies and tendency to push the envelope on legislative sway over the UC system aligned him with labor unions but often isolated him from his colleagues and contemporaries. Now, some stakeholders in California public higher education are saying Yee’s lengthy quarrels with the university actually diminished his influence on UC-related issues.
“I don’t think there will be a remarkable change in higher education policy with Leland Yee’s departure,” said Scott Lay, current president and CEO of the Community College League of California and a seasoned California political veteran. “Frankly, his acerbic style turned off a lot of his fellow legislators, so while Yee was gaining publicity … he wasn’t actually gaining policy traction.”
UC spokesperson Steve Montiel concurred, indicating that despite the university’s “vigorous disagreements” with Yee, their quarrels never constituted an agenda-setting political obstacle — and his absence is unlikely to effect any major changes in the university’s operations.
The issues Yee targeted since he entered the state legislature in late 2002 comprise a shortlist of major political disputes in California higher education in the last decade: executive compensation, labor relations, administrative transparency, health care services and more. On some of the most significant and controversial issues to face the UC system in the last decade, Yee and university officials frequently stood in stark opposition.
Clash over administrator pay
Appropriate compensation for UC executive administrators is just one of the issues Yee frequently and vocally raised. When Yee introduced Senate Bill 8 in late 2012, it was his fourth attempt in three years to seriously restrict compensation for higher education officials in the UC and CSU systems.
“Despite calls from the governor, UC and CSU continue to line the pockets of their top administrators,” Yee stated in a December 2012 press release. “The Regents and Trustees treat dollars meant for students as a personal slush fund for already-wealthy executives.”
The measure drew opposition from UC officials in Sacramento, who said it would limit the university’s ability to attract high-quality administrators, but gained support from a labor union whose Local 3299 chapter represents UC patient-care and service workers — the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.
SB 8 was one of three bills carried by Yee in the legislative session the year before his arrest that were formally opposed by the university. With Yee suspended and his capitol office staff now under the supervision of the Senate Rules Committee, the bill is unlikely to proceed, according to Dan Lieberman, press secretary at Yee’s office.
A wider conflict
Beyond the capitol, Yee’s conflicts with the UC system often spilled into the public view, as Yee actively sought opportunities to criticize university policies and gather support for his legislation.
In September 2009, Yee appeared at a student and employee protest on the UCSF campus against fee hikes, layoffs and furloughs. A press release from his office circulated the next day touted the opening line, “Senator Leland Yee is at it again with the University of California.”
Less than one year later, Yee requested a state audit of the UC system, alleging the university was beset with “waste, fraud and abuse.” The state auditor’s report, released August 2011, suggested the university lacked adequate financial transparency but found no cases of wasteful spending.
Yee also frequently criticized individual UC officials and nominees for major positions in the university. He was a regular critic of former UC President Mark Yudof, a staunch opponent of UC Davis Chancellor Linda Katehi and a lead advocate in the push to block the confirmation of former UC Regent David Crane over Crane’s position on collective bargaining rights for public sector workers.
“The Regents consistently cater to the elite and ignore their unionized workers — nurses, janitors, technicians, bus drivers, teaching assistants and others,” Yee told the San Francisco Bay Guardian in 2011, amid the Crane controversy.
An alliance with AFSCME
Recurrently, Yee’s higher education stances aligned with the positions of AFSCME, which has repeatedly sparred with the university in recent years, and Yee’s campaign bank accounts suggest a strong alliance between the two.
According to an analysis of Yee’s campaign finance records, AFSCME has directly contributed about $40,000 to Yee since 2008 and funneled hundreds of thousands of dollars more to Yee’s 2011 San Francisco mayoral effort by organizing a lucrative external campaign committee. AFSCME’s official endorsement of Yee’s candidacy that year declared him a “longtime champion” of the organization.
Then, in 2013, AFSCME played a role in crafting Yee’s Senate Bill 495, which would have prioritized UC funding for student health-care clinics, whose employees AFSCME represents. UC officials opposed the measure on grounds that footing the financial cost of the bill would force the university to increase student fees.
“AFSCME 3299 works to advance the priorities of … communities we serve at UC,” said union spokesperson Todd Stenhouse in an email. “This includes advocating for legislation and supporting candidates that share our commitment to access, fairness, quality and the highest ethical standards … Ultimately, a court of law will determine the veracity of the troubling allegations against Senator Yee.”
Wading through muddied legal waters
Current law bans direct exchanges of campaign donations for legislative action, but evidence for quid pro quo trades is often scarce, and eliminating the political access that money often buys is not simple, according to Ethan Rarick, director of the politics and public service center at UC Berkeley’s governmental studies institute.
Stanford University political science professor Bruce Cain agreed, adding that the line between cooperation and corruption is often hard to trace.
“The fine line is actually a very blurry line, and the reason is that politics is full of quid pro quo,” Cain said.
Still, the federal indictment against Yee indicates that his relationship with donors may have been problematic. After Yee allegedly accepted sizeable donations from FBI agents posing as businessmen for a fake software consulting company, Yee used his influence to promote their business with the state Department of Public Health.
Yee was indicted by a federal grand jury, then pled not guilty to eight total charges of corruption and arms trafficking April 8. He is currently awaiting trial.