Calderon Exiled, Unbowed After Brown Scrap

Times Staff Writer

While most state employees were off Monday for Martin Luther King's birthday, Assemblyman Charles M. Calderon's staff was finishing a hastily arranged move of the lawmaker's office into smaller Capitol quarters.

Outside his old office, cardboard boxes lined the hallway. Tacked to the wall was a hand-lettered sign on yellow paper that said: "Assemblyman Calderon Moved to Room 6011."

The office switch is the most visible sign that the three-term Alhambra Democrat is embroiled in a nasty scrap with Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco), who has disciplined Calderon and three of his Democratic colleagues in apparent retaliation for policy differences.

Besides being exiled to a remote sixth-floor office, Calderon was stripped of his leadership post as majority whip, lost his seats on the influential Ways and Means Committee and the Finance and Insurance Committee, and suffered a six-member reduction of his staff.

Calderon minimized the long-term impact of his fall from power. "It doesn't matter how much space you have," he said, "or how much staff you have, or what your parking space is, or what your assignments are because . . . I'm here to represent my district . . . no matter what the consequences."

So far, Calderon staff members said, the punishment has triggered dozens of letters and telephone calls in support of their boss. "My political fortunes have been boosted in my district," the assemblyman said.

Calderon, 37, represents the heavily Democratic 59th District, which includes Alhambra, Monterey Park, Montebello, Pico Rivera and South El Monte. In the 1986 election, he easily won a third term.

Lawmaking Power Diluted

While his reelection prospects remain strong, Calderon's ability to enact major legislation has been clouded by the split with Brown. The Speaker has said that he was not disciplining Calderon and the other Democrats but merely reshuffling the Assembly's organization. Others say that an increasing number of policy disputes with Brown and more liberal members led to the rift with Calderon and his moderate colleagues.

Calderon and the four others are close friends and political allies. In addition to Calderon, they are Rusty Areias of Los Banos, Gary Condit of Ceres and Steve Peace of Chula Vista. Along with a fifth member, Gerald Eaves of Rialto, who so far has not been disciplined, the middle-of-the-road lawmakers are known as the "gang of five" or the "five amigos." With their support, the Assembly's 36 Republicans could dump Brown as speaker of the 80-member house.

Calderon contends that Brown took the action because he and his allies pose "a threat to his (Brown's) leadership. . . . We're more in line with Democrats in this state than he is. He is out of step."

For example, Calderon cited Brown's becoming national chairman of the Jesse Jackson presidential campaign committee. "I told him that I thought that was a mistake" because it could prove unpopular in some Democratic Assembly districts, Calderon said.

At a meeting two weeks ago, Calderon said, Brown told him that he was considering reducing Calderon's staff, office space and budget. The assemblyman said he cautioned the Speaker that the move would backfire and it would appear that he was "standing up to Willie Brown."

Calderon said the disagreements have been simmering for months within the Assembly Democratic Caucus. As a way to placate the five restless lawmakers, Calderon was elevated to a leadership position a year ago. He said he accepted it "only under the condition that I would not be restrained in voicing my opinions and feelings. In fact, I told Willie specifically, 'I will drive you crazy.' "

Calderon suggests that a number of factors may have prompted Brown's action.

Last year, Calderon, the four others and at least one additional lawmaker sent a letter to Sen. Ken Maddy, supporting the Fresno Republican's bid to become state treasurer, an act that reportedly undercut Brown when he had discussions about the appointment with Gov. George Deukmejian. Rep. Daniel E. Lungren (R-Long Beach) was ultimately named to succeed the late Jesse M. Unruh.

In August, Calderon and two of his colleagues sided with Republicans in the Ways and Means Committee to form a majority in support of an insurance industry view on amendments to a bill.

The five moderates and Brown have had policy differences on a such issues as the Speaker's initial opposition to the state income tax rebate.

Wrong Approach?

Assemblyman Richard E. Floyd (D-Gardena) said that Calderon and the others sought special treatment from Brown. "You don't tell the Speaker that five of us are going to be treated one way or else," Floyd said in an interview, adding that Calderon should "sit down and shut up" and follow the caucus line on policy issues.

Instead, last Friday, Calderon and the others responded to Brown's disciplinary action by serving notice that they would try to withdraw stalled bills from committees for showdown floor votes. Such a request was viewed as a direct challenge to Brown's leadership. As a result, Brown on Monday stripped Areias of his committee chairmanship.

Brown had said that Calderon and his allies "will isolate themselves as they continue that nonsense. Those are juvenile games."

Calderon said he has been drawn to the other members of the "five amigos" group because they are roughly the same age and share his moderate views. They often eat dinner together and socialize, and they recently went duck-hunting together.

Calderon has risen quickly in politics. A former Los Angeles deputy city attorney, he was elected as a trustee of the Montebello Unified School District board in 1979. In 1982, he won the Assembly seat and has coasted to reelection ever since.

Backed by Liberal Lobbies

As a lawmaker, Calderon has received high marks from labor, environmental and teacher groups for supporting their legislation. He has been a sharp critic of state cleanup efforts at the Operating Industries Inc. landfill in Monterey Park. And in 1986, Calderon successfully carried long-sought legislation to open California to interstate banking.

For Calderon, the escalation of verbal warfare has highlighted a period of major personal transition. On Jan. 4, when lawmakers returned to Sacramento for the 1988 session, Calderon proudly told a reporter that he had lost more than 40 pounds. Then, last week Calderon was placed in Brown's political doghouse. However, the week ended on a high note as Calderon's wife gave birth to their second child, a son, on Saturday. Since then, Calderon has been at home with his family.

When he returns to the Capitol, he will head for his new office, which had been occupied by Assemblyman Richard Polanco (D-Los Angeles). Interestingly, Calderon had taken Polanco under his wing after he was first elected in 1986. Now, Polanco is in the position of advising Calderon, who he predicts will remain an effective lawmaker.

Said Polanco: "I think the worst is behind him."

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