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Calderon name may lose its luster in state politics

SACRAMENTO — The indictments against state Sen. Ronald S. Calderon and former Assemblyman Tom Calderon struck a severe blow to a political family that has held sway from the Capitol to the San Gabriel Valley for three decades — and hoped to extend its influence with this year's elections.

The Calderon name has been strong currency in Sacramento since the 1982 election of Charles Calderon, the brother of the indicted siblings, to the state Assembly. He rose to become Senate Majority Leader in the 1990s and has a son in the Legislature now: Assemblyman Ian Calderon (D-Whittier).

The charges facing the two Democratic brothers from Montebello follow months of leaked accusations and a political battle between Ron Calderon and the state Senate leader, who stripped him of all committee assignments.

"What we are seeing are the last days of a political dynasty," said Jaime Regalado, professor emeritus of political science at Cal State L.A. "The perception of many who followed their [Ronald's and Tom's] careers is that they kind of lived on the edge, and sometimes that happens when people get too powerful."

Ron Calderon, 56, was charged Friday with accepting $100,000 in bribes as well as free plane trips, gourmet dinners and visits to golf resorts, in exchange for action on legislation involving tax credits for the film industry and workers compensation.

Tom Calderon, 59, was charged with being part of a money-laundering conspiracy involving his brother.

Attorneys for both men denied the allegations and said their clients would be vindicated in court.

The indictments cast a somber mood over the Capitol, where Senate leader Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) called on Ron Calderon to resign, saying his continued service would be "a cloud over all the important work that we must get done this year."

If the embattled senator does not quit or take a leave of absence, Steinberg said, "the Senate will seek to suspend him."

Some lawmakers said the scandal taints the entire Legislature.

"Today's action by the U.S. attorney casts a shadow of corruption and greed over our government and all who serve as elected officials," said Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia (D-Bell Gardens).

The indictments could affect the aspirations of other family members.

Charles Calderon is a candidate this year for Los Angeles County Superior Court judge. He has distanced himself from his siblings in recent months. Ian Calderon is running for reelection to the Assembly.

The situation is "bound to claim casualties," Regalado said. "Chuck is the dean. He was the first elected, he goes way back, and he's bound to be affected by this."

The Calderon family rose on its members' reputation as voracious campaign fundraisers willing to play political hardball. Various Calderons leveraged themselves and their kin into coveted chairmanships on powerful committees overseeing insurance, banking and other key industries.

The indictments were no surprise to many in and outside of state government, who said Ronald and Tom Calderon had reputations for pushing the envelope on ethics regulations, tapping campaign accounts and gifts from special interests to fund luxurious lifestyles.

"When we have done reports on gifts received by legislators from outside special interests, the Calderons are often times at the top of our list in terms of recipients," said Kathay Feng, executive director of California Common Cause.

Members of the Calderon clan have raised some $15 million in contributions for dozens of political committees since 2000. More than $1 million of that money paid for golf outings to resorts in Las Vegas, Oregon, Hawaii and other locales.

An additional $220,000 in campaign donations funded steak dinners, and $4,000 went toward cigars, according to reports the Calderons filed with the state.

The family's political careers began with the election of Charles Calderon to the Montebello School Board in 1979. He later won a seat in the Assembly and, in 1990, used that as a springboard to the state Senate.

He returned to the Assembly in 2006 and was Majority Floor Leader and a member of the Appropriations Committee when he left due to term limits in 2012.

Tom Calderon sat in the Assembly from 1998 to 2002. After leaving office, he won contracts advising local agencies, including the Central Basin Municipal Water District, on how to get their way in Sacramento. The district paid him $750,000 in consulting fees from 2004 through 2011.

Ronald Calderon was elected to the Assembly in 2002 and went to the Senate four years later. There, he was part of a small group of business-friendly moderates wooed by both parties' leaders when votes were tight. That gave him special sway in the upper house.

The brothers "mastered the art of how you leverage," said former state Sen. Gloria Romero, a Democrat who served with them.

Until November, Ron Calderon chaired the Senate Insurance Committee, making him the gatekeeper for bills affecting the insurance industry even as he accepted campaign contributions from businesses that would be affected by those measures.

Calderon also served on the Senate Governmental Organization Committee, which oversees the gambling and liquor industries.

He was stripped of committees four months ago, after he publicly asserted that Steinberg and state Sen. Kevin De Leon (D-Los Angeles) were the true targets of the FBI investigation.

Assistant U.S. Atty. Douglas M. Miller released a sworn affidavit Friday saying FBI agents never told Calderon that other senators were targeted in the probe.

The Calderons' fall began last summer when the FBI raided Sen. Calderon's office. Shortly afterward, Sen. Calderon, whose term in the Senate runs out this year, abandoned a campaign for state controller. Tom Calderon dropped his run for his brother's Senate seat.

It remains to be seen whether the indictments will affect the reelection campaign of Assemblyman Ian Calderon.

"Ian, the new generation, is going to have to continue making his own mark, apart from the troubles besetting his uncles," Regalado said. "It's going to be difficult terrain."

patrick.mcgreevy@latimes.com

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times
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