The Legislature as a Family Affair
Despite the turnover mandated by term limits, one name has remained a constant in California’s Capitol: Calderon.
Every year since 1983, a brother from this Montebello family -- first Charles, then Tom and now Ron -- has served in the Legislature, each rising to a leadership position.
This year, Ron hopes to shift from the Assembly to the state Senate, and Charles aims to be elected to his seat, which Tom held before Ron. Charles represented the area in the Assembly for most of the 1980s, before term limits.
The dual campaigns offer the rare prospect of two siblings serving concurrently in the Legislature. It would not be the first time the brothers from East Los Angeles have worked in tandem.
In their campaigns, all three Calderons have hired a brother, providing not only a source of income but also a foothold for their own political careers. Calderon campaign accounts have paid family members -- including current and future wives -- at least $323,500 since 1990, state records show.
Children of a mother who was raised in poverty and a salesman father, the Calderon brothers have done more than establish a perennial presence in the Legislature. At a time when politicians come and go, they have made enduring careers -- ones that straddle the public and private realms of California politics.
“In our community, family is not a bad word,” Charles Calderon said. “Our name is one that people trust, and certainly one that they know.”
The Calderons, who depict themselves as moderate Democrats interested in finding common ground among competing interests, have been favorites of both labor and business interests.
Charles Calderon said the brothers’ unifying passion is a concern for the poor and for their largely working-class constituents in East Los Angeles. Calderon described himself as the most diplomatic; his middle brother, Tom, as the most focused and determined -- a “heat-seeking missile” -- and the youngest, Ron as the most “big hearted” of the trio.
Charles Calderon said his brothers won their elections in their own right, though he acknowledged that each sibling’s career helped pave the way for the next.
“Tom met a lot of people through me; Ron met a lot of people through Tom,” he said. “There wasn’t anything like Joe Kennedy -- that the next power of our family was going to be government” via a dynasty.
Before taking his brother Tom’s seat in the Assembly in 2002, Ron Calderon worked as chief of staff to another Los Angeles assemblyman, Ed Chavez, and as a political consultant to his brother Tom, whose campaign paid Ron $36,000 in 2000 and 2001.
As chairman of the Assembly’s Banking and Finance Committee, Ron Calderon has been a key contact for business interests, which have given more than two-thirds of the $2.2 million he has raised.
Donors backing his Senate campaign include the Southern California Contractors Assn., the California Truckers Assn., the California Assn. of Industrial Banks, the Assn. of California Insurance Cos. and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. Since last year, Ron Calderon has proposed legislation that was either sponsored or supported by each of those groups, records show.
“When a group comes to me -- whether it’s truckers or nonprofit counseling people or whatever the group may be -- I’ll sit with them; I’ll listen to the issue,” Ron Calderon said. “I want to decide whether it has merit.”
The financial assistance is important: Calderon is enmeshed in one of the toughest legislative primaries this year -- for Senate District 30 in eastern Los Angeles. He faces strong competition from fellow Assemblyman Rudy Bermudez, a former prison guard whose campaign is being aided by $172,000 in independent spending by the California Correctional Peace Officers Assn.
The middle brother, Tom Calderon, worked as campaign manager and consultant for his older brother Charles before being elected to the Assembly himself in 1999. After heading the Assembly Insurance Committee, he ran unsuccessfully for the 2002 Democratic nomination for insurance commissioner as the industry’s preferred candidate.
But insurers’ donations -- more than $1 million -- could not win him the primary contest against John Garamendi, who also prevailed in that year’s general election.
After his defeat, Tom Calderon became a campaign consultant for his younger brother, earning $76,000 between 2002 and 2004. He also built a political consulting practice based on his legislative experience.
He has since become a major political donor, giving more than $90,000 to candidates and the Democratic Party personally and through his company, the Calderon Group, and his old campaign accounts.
Among his first clients was Pacific Hospital of Long Beach. The facility’s owners run a chain of surgery centers that had benefited from legislation Calderon wrote and had given him $98,000 when he was running for insurance commissioner.
The 2002 legislation clamped down on workers’ compensation costs but did not limit fees charged by outpatient surgical centers such as those run by an affiliated corporation, West Coast Surgery Center Management.
West Coast Surgery gave $8,500 to the 2003 Montebello school board reelection campaign of Tom Calderon’s wife, Marcella, as well as the maximum donations to Ron and Charles’ campaigns.
Last year, Tom Calderon advised the Pharmacists & Physicians Alliance, whose members prescribe drugs to injured workers. The group -- operated out of offices at West Coast Surgery Center -- wanted to kill legislation that would have limited the markups those doctors can charge on drugs they sell -- sometimes 600% of their actual cost. Assembly leaders halted the bill after it passed the Senate unanimously.
A third Tom Calderon client was the Metropolitan Water District, which paid him $70,000 from 2002 to 2004 to help “gain and maintain support among key top business and political leaders” for the agency’s long-term goals, according to his contract, which excluded directly lobbying legislators.
At the time of his hiring, the district’s chairman was Phillip Pace, a Montebello developer who had been Charles Calderon’s campaign treasurer and a major financial supporter, and whose company and relatives had donated $5,500 to the other two brothers. Calderon’s contract was terminated -- along with other consultants’ deals -- when Pace was replaced as chairman.
Tom Calderon did not respond to requests for comment.
Charles Calderon served in the Assembly from 1982 to 1990 and then in the state Senate, rising to majority leader. He lost the 1998 Democratic primary for California attorney general to Bill Lockyer.
Since then, he has established a legal practice at Nossaman Guthner Knox Elliott, which touts his legislative experience on its website. “Calderon represents clients in achieving their objectives as they navigate governmental proceedings and the political processes,” the site says.
In 1999, Charles Calderon represented several water districts pressing for a cleanup of contaminated groundwater in the San Gabriel Valley.
In an interview, he said he strategized on the issue with his brother Tom, who was heading an Assembly panel investigating the issue. Their efforts, he said, helped result in a settlement that polluting companies reached with federal officials to pay more than $120 million to remove the toxic substances.
“That problem had existed for 30 years,” said Charles Calderon, who first won election to the Assembly on a platform of closing a local dump. “We solved it in three years.”
If Charles Calderon wins his four-way primary, he will start with more experience on his first day than any of his 119 colleagues.
His private-sector success is helping fuel his campaign for Assembly District 58: Calderon has lent his campaign $61,000. He has raised more than $278,000 from corporate interests and $107,000 from unions.
His second wife, Lisa, a professional political consultant, does his fundraising and has earned $107,000 from his campaigns.
He said it was unfair to fault any of the brothers for their reliance on special-interest money, saying that is the way the campaign finance system works.
“The evil isn’t in the money,” he said. “The evil is in the heart, and our hearts are in the right place.”