SACRAMENTO — For a while it looked like the state Legislature was shedding its reputation as a political punching bag, its ratings in public opinion polls climbing out of the cellar as the budget crisis eased and the economy began to recover.
Then federal authorities announced criminal charges against state Sen. Ronald S. Calderon (D-Montebello) and his brother Tom Calderon, a former lawmaker, on Friday.
The senator is accused of fraud, money laundering and taking nearly $100,000 in bribes in return for pushing to expand tax credits for the film industry and opposing certain workers’ compensation legislation. His brother is charged with participating in a money laundering conspiracy.
The Calderons, through their attorneys, have denied the charges, which came less than a month after Sen. Roderick D. Wright (D-Inglewood) was convicted of perjury and voter fraud for not living in the district he represents.
But as the scandals swirl, analysts say their effects are likely to be minimal, even in this election year. Incumbents tend to keep their jobs, and voters aren’t paying enough attention to be outraged.
In addition, the legal cases have come early in the year, long before Californians cast ballots in the primary or the general election. And many voters consider such controversies to be business as usual.
“It’s like saying gambling is going on in Las Vegas,” said Jack Pitney, professor of political science at Claremont McKenna College and a former national GOP official. “Nowadays, people think ‘House of Cards’ is a documentary,” he said, referring to the cynical political drama released by Netflix.
The scandals have made the Democrats’ two-thirds supermajorities in the Assembly and the Senate vulnerable: If both Wright and Calderon quit or are forced from office, as some have called for, their party would lose that edge in the upper house.
But Calderon is termed out this year, and Wright is not up for reelection. Moreover, both hail from solidly Democratic districts whose voters could well keep Democrats in both of those seats.
At most, the scandals could be a wild card as Republicans seek to win over disillusioned voters, said Larry Gerston, a political science professor at San Jose State.
But such crossover typically happens in very close races when people are actively looking for “a check on a party that’s alleged to be out of control,” he said, and that may not be widely the case this year.
Voters have other concerns, such as the drought and pockets of persistent unemployment, Pitney said.
He said he expected even the high-profile Calderon case to have little effect, for example, on the governor’s race — although “I’m sure the Republican [opposition researchers] are looking for photographs of Jerry Brown and Ron Calderon.”
Brown is expected to seek reelection; his two main challengers are Assemblyman Tim Donnelly (R-Twin Peaks) and Republican former U.S. Treasury official Neel Kashkari of Laguna Beach.
The Calderon indictments could have fallout within the family, which has been a Democratic powerhouse in Southern California and the Capitol for decades.
Tom and Ron’s older brother, former state Sen. Charles Calderon, is running for Los Angeles County Superior Court judge this year. Charles’ son, Assemblyman Ian Charles Calderon (D-Whittier), is running for reelection.
The situation is “bound to claim casualties,” said Jaime Regalado, professor emeritus of political science at Cal State L.A.
But Bill Carrick, a Democratic strategist, said that in legislative races, incumbents won’t be tarred unless they’re directly involved in wrongdoing, and he doubted ethics controversies would become a defining election issue.
“Races are decided one by one — by the quality of the candidates and the quality of the campaigns,” he said.
Federal authorities caution that the Calderon case is ongoing, and it’s always possible new allegations will emerge.
Pitney noted that Ron Calderon briefly had cooperated with the corruption investigation by wearing a wire, according to federal officials in one of their court filings.
“Every politician in Sacramento probably blanched and wondered what he had said to Ron Calderon,” Pitney said.
Times staff writer Patrick McGreevy contributed to this report.