It’s been panned as a childish prank, a potential opening to a coup, even as an indication of Senate leader Don Perata’s jitters over an apparently renewed investigation into possible charges of political corruption. But, the Senate president pro tem’s move last week to lock out three members of his own party from their offices for a day was also seen by some as a show of strength, a shot across the bow of would-be moderate spoilers, and as striking a blow for liberals intent on passing strong environmental, health care and civil justice bills this year. One thing is for sure: The Oakland Democrat signaled he is willing to embarrass his own caucus members to assert his powers and enforce caucus unity. Supporters say he wouldn’t have done it if he didn’t have the backing of the majority of Democrats. Critics say he foolishly picked a fight that could have repercussions. The three lawmakers – Southern California Sens. Ron Calderon, Gloria Negrete-McLeod and Lou Correa – provoked Perata’s ire by attending a fundraising dinner held by moderate Assembly Democrats, known as the “Mod Squad.” All three were members of the Assembly caucus before moving to the Senate, often voting as a bloc aligned with Republicans to stymie legislation they felt was detrimental to business. “It’s divided people in the Capitol,” said a legislative staffer who asked not to be identified because he didn’t want to antagonize Perata. “There’s those who think it’s an appropriate way to maintain order. Others think it was ham-handed and created animosity where it wasn’t necessary.” A spokeswoman for Perata said he would not comment. Some in the Capitol said the move may reflect Perata’s desire to seize an opportunity to show strength in the wake of last week’s news that the U.S. Attorney’s office had re-started interviews in its two-year corruption investigation of Perata. The U.S. Attorney’s office has been searching for evidence that Perata made illegal payments to family member and friends from campaign funds. Earlier in the year, Perata made clear he intended to serve the full legislative session as president pro tem to tamp down talk of a potential takeover attempt by would-be successors. Two freshmen, Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Los Angeles, considered a pro-business moderate, and Sen. Darrel Steinberg, D-Sacramento, have been tagged as potential candidates, though neither has indicated they will challenge Perata. “It opens up an internal front emboldening other Democrats, notably Padilla and Steinberg, to consider their options,” said David McCuan, a political science professor at Cal State Sonoma. “There won’t be outright revolt and rebellion. But, at a minimum, they’ll consult with the caucus and feel folks out on Perata’s leadership.” Barbara O’Connor, a communications professor at Cal State Sacramento, doubts there will be any consequences in the short term. “I don’t see a coup attempt,” she said. “But in the long haul, exercising power like that is an interesting way to rule. There’s less public ways and ways that cause less acrimony on a personal level.” O’Connor said she believes Perata’s move makes the Legislature look all that more silly to the public, and that won’t bolster efforts by lawmakers to extend term limits. When stacked up against punishment meted out by past leaders, however, Perata’s was not extraordinary, said Tim Hodson, executive director for the Center for California Studies at Cal State Sacramento, and former top legislative aide in the 1980s. Former Assembly Speaker Willie Brown was notorious for stripping Democrats from committees, moving them from their offices and other forms of discipline. Brown himself, before becoming speaker, was moved into a converted bathroom for his own transgression. And current Assembly Speaker Fabian Nu ez, D-Los Angeles, banished Assemblyman Juan Arambula, D-Fresno, into a smaller office last year after voting against an infrastructure bond bill. “Usually, this kind of action has the support of the caucus,” Hodson said. “It has to be used sparingly and wisely.” Liberals were happy to see Perata stanch potential splintering among Democrats, and say he has strong standing as leader. “He’s in no peril,” said Sen. Sheila Kuhl, D-Santa Monica. “He was correct to send a message that we do not caucus in small groups to discuss votes. The Mod Squad in the Assembly discussed votes and didn’t invite authors of bills to attend their meetings. That was a concern to a lot of us when we were in the Assembly. I think Don just didn’t want to see that in the Senate.” Typically, Perata has allowed Democrats to vote their conscience and their districts, so the punishment was specifically aimed at breaking up ideological groups. Still, that raises the question of how effective the discipline will be, said Darry Sragow, a Democratic political strategist for CalChamber, the state’s biggest business lobbyist, since Perata won’t likely force the moderates to vote with liberals. “Is it going to turn moderate Democrats into raging liberals?” Sragow said. “My guess is they probably don’t scare very easily. “All this goes to the independence legislators have in an era of term limits,” he added. “With term limits as short as they are, the weapons or sticks a leader can wield are fairly limited. There’s a sense that \ are not in a position to beat recalcitrant members into submission.” email@example.com (916) 441-2101.160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. 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