For the Calderons, politics and its money are the family business
SACRAMENTO — Ian Calderon’s introduction to the family business began at the ripe age of 1.
His dad, Charles Calderon, then a state senator, staged a carnival for his son’s birthday at their Montebello home in 1986. The senator used $2,000 in political contributions to pay for the backyard bash, and the guest list included campaign supporters and political pals.
“So what?’' Charles Calderon testified in an unrelated court case four years later. “I’ve been doing this ever since I was in public office.”
Ian Calderon had another birthday party last October. He was 27 years old and the party was at a tony restaurant a block from the Capitol. This time, he was the one who invited campaign supporters, hoping to collect up to $3,900 a head for his state Assembly bid.
The father and son mark the beginning, and possible future, of a political dynasty that has spanned three decades, a family infused into the blue-collar neighborhoods east of Los Angeles where the Calderon surname has appeared on local ballots for two generations.
The Calderons have flourished in the sometimes ruthless environs of the California Assembly and Senate, where four family members have served in the carpeted chambers: brothers Charles, Ronald and Tom, and Charles’ son. They’ve cut reputations for raising campaign cash and reigning over the Legislature’s powerful “juice committees,” those overseeing banking, insurance and other industries that have the cash to bankroll political campaigns.
They use their political muscle to help one another, squeezing political opponents, pushing legislation backed by supporters and even orchestrating a brazen leadership coup attempt.
“Power begets power,” said Jaime A. Regalado, a political scientist at Cal State L.A. “They’ve been around for the long haul and, over time, scared away a lot of people who wanted to run for their seats.”
Controversy also clings to them. Last month, gun-toting FBI agents raided the Capitol offices of state Sen. Ronald S. Calderon (D-Montebello) and seized records from a Southern California water district with financial ties to Calderon’s brother, former Assemblyman Tom Calderon.
Federal officials remain mum on the focus of the investigation, but the inquiry appears to be as far-reaching as the family’s influence.
FBI agents questioned officials from cities served by the Central Basin Municipal Water District, a regional water wholesaler in Los Angeles County that has paid Tom Calderon more than $750,000 in consulting fees since 2004.
A Los Angeles County grand jury subpoenaed several lawmakers as part of the probe, including a former aide to Ronald Calderon.
Attorneys for Ronald and Tom Calderon have said their clients have done nothing wrong. Charles Calderon spoke for himself, saying in a telephone interview, “We operate like any other legislator.”
The federal investigation has done little to dampen the Calderons’ political aspirations.
Ronald Calderon, who will be termed out of the Senate next year, has opened campaign accounts to raise money for possible runs for state controller and an Assembly seat in the future. Tom Calderon maintains a fund to run for his brother’s Senate post. Ian Calderon is running for reelection in the Assembly; and his father, Charles, is collecting donations for a campaign for secretary of state.
Until May, Tom Calderon controlled a political action committee whose biggest contributions came from large insurance companies. It paid for outings at golf resorts and for private plane travel, campaign finance reports show.
Calderon family members have opened 54 political accounts since 1986 and have taken in at least $15 million in contributions since 2000. Slightly more than half a million dollars of the money in the family members’ political accounts was passed from brother to brother, father to son, uncle to nephew.
An additional $463,000 went to pay the Calderon brothers, wives and children as staff during that time; $110,000 went to Tom Calderon and his firm, Calderon Group.
In addition to campaign expenses, the funds also paid more than $1 million to golf resorts in Las Vegas, Hawaii and other locations; $220,000 on steak dinners, $4,000 for cigars and $325 for false eyelashes. The last item was reported as an “appreciation” gift from Charles Calderon to his sister-in-law, serving as a campaign consultant.
Ronald Calderon’s political bounty has paid for high-priced stogies, VIP tickets to Las Vegas boxing matches and Lakers playoff games, his campaign filings show. It has also financed rounds of golf at Pebble Beach, skybox tickets to a Britney Spears concert and a $1,320 spa bill during his “Birthday Bash” fundraiser at the Grand Pacific Palisades Resort near San Diego.
The Calderons’ rise to political power began with Charles, 63, a moderate Democrat who didn’t hesitate to defy his party elders along the way. He won a seat on the Montebello Unified School District board at age 29 in 1979 and was elected to the Assembly in 1982.
In 1988, he joined four others in a failed attempt to oust Assembly Speaker Willie Brown, a fellow Democrat. The speaker showed no mercy to the “Gang of Five.” In his autobiography, “Basic Brown,” he gleefully described stripping the “disloyal bastards” of their committee chairmanships, evicting them from their large offices and moving their furniture into the halls.
Unfazed, Calderon won a Senate seat two years later and rose to majority leader before returning to the Assembly in 2006. His younger brothers soon followed. First came Tom Calderon, in the Assembly from 1998 to 2002, and then Ronald Calderon, elected to the Assembly in 2002.
To run against one is to run against the family.
Bruce Young experienced that firsthand last year, as campaign manager for Rudy Bermudez, a former state assemblyman running against Ian Calderon in the primary for an Assembly seat based in Whittier. As the campaign became heated, Ian’s father, then Assembly majority leader, stepped in and called some of Young’s other clients.
Young took the calls as a threat. In January 2012, his lawyer sent a “cease and desist” letter to Charles Calderon, claiming the assemblyman had “threatened to retaliate against” Young’s clients and the legislation they supported “if they did not either terminate their relationship with Mr. Young or convince him to ‘back off’ managing Mr. Bermudez’ campaign.”
Young’s clients said they were not sure whether Calderon, who held considerable influence over whether their issues would see daylight in Sacramento, was pressuring them or simply raising money aggressively for his son.
“I didn’t feel like I was threatened, per se,” but a call from the Assembly majority leader signaled his strong feelings on the matter, said one client, Bruce Allen, lead lobbyist for the state association of certified public accountants.
Charles Calderon declined to speak publicly about the calls. His son did not respond to interview requests. And like many who were interviewed about the family, Young would not discuss the matter. “Everybody is reluctant [to talk] because we have to live up here,” said Young, a former assemblyman who continues to lobby.
Ian Calderon won the primary by 337 votes after a last-minute, $600,000 independent campaign was launched to support him. It was funded by StudentsFirst, an education advocacy group led by Michelle Rhee, former chancellor of the Washington, D.C., public schools, and the California Tribal Business Alliance, run by the spouse of a former Calderon aide.
The organizations’ money — three times the amount Ian Calderon raised for himself — helped fill district mailboxes and cable TV slots a week before the vote.
“It swamped our campaign,” said Pat Reddy, a campaign coordinator for Bermudez.
Before StudentsFirst paid for its first cable ad, the group’s internal planning documents show, the organization gave legislative offices the draft of a bill that Charles Calderon had agreed to sponsor. The proposed bill would have eliminated seniority-based layoffs for teachers and required at least half of an educator’s evaluation to be based on student test scores.
The measure faced opposition from other education activists, though, and was dropped. Ronald Calderon has since inserted key parts of the failed proposal into other bills.
Early last year, a crowd of political heavyweights, including the governor, turned out for a memorial service for Tom Calderon’s wife, Marcella, a Montebello school board member, who had died of cancer.
A Calderon-controlled political committee put $10,000 into her memorial fund.
Ronald Calderon used a campaign account to pay for flowers.
Times staff writers Melanie Mason, Phil Willon and Anthony York contributed to this report.
Get breaking news, investigations, analysis and more signature journalism from the Los Angeles Times in your inbox.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.