SACRAMENTO — At a posh downtown sushi bar, Assemblyman Charles Calderon, one of the Capitol’s most powerful politicians, tossed back his second Black Russian as a cadre of lobbyists lined up to pay respects.
But the Whittier Democrat directed each well-wisher to the person he really wanted them to meet: his 26-year-old son, Ian, standing in a dark corner behind the tempura and dumplings.
The former surfing champion and fledgling reality TV producer, hands shoved in his suit pockets, seemed ill at ease with the task at hand: collecting campaign checks to help him win a legislative seat and continue a long-running political dynasty. Since 1983, a member of the Calderon clan has served in the Capitol.
In recent years, Charles Calderon, the Assembly speaker’s top lieutenant, has helped his son land a job as a legislative aide, paid him tens of thousands of dollars in campaign consulting fees and taken him along on one of the most extravagant annual lawmaker junkets — to Hawaii (both Calderons say Ian paid his own way). Now, facing term limits that will shut him out of the Legislature after this year, the elder Calderon is championing his son’s run.
Twenty-two years after California voters passed term limits, legislative elections have increasingly become legacy contests. At least 16 lawmakers have relatives who served in the Legislature, giving them name recognition and fundraising connections to extend their families’ political reach. From the Calderon family, Ian’s uncles Tom and Ron have also held leadership positions in the Legislature.
“Where there is familiarity there is access,” said Larry Gerston, a political scientist at San Jose State, “and where there is access there is influence.”
Donors know that. The political novice from Hacienda Heights has out-raised his chief rival, former Assemblyman Rudy Bermudez, a La Mirada Democrat, by more than 2 to 1, taking in more than $217,000, according to the campaign’s fundraising reports. Much of the money is from insurance, labor and pharmaceutical interests, which have fueled the senior Calderon’s career.
On the ballot, Ian Calderon will be identified as a Democrat and adds his middle name: Charles.
Bermudez, 53, paints him as a slacker unworthy of the family business.
“He hasn’t done anything in life,” said Bermudez, a former prison guard and parole agent. “This race boils down to experience, knowledge, commitment — all things that my opponent lacks.”
Republican Noel A. Jaimes, 57, a business owner, is also running in the largely Democratic 57th District, which stretches from La Puente to La Mirada.
Ian Calderon touts his youth, billing himself as a political outsider from the Millennial Generation. His campaign literature notes the average age ofU.S. militarycasualties in the Middle East: 25.
“I’m not too young to die for my country,” Calderon, who has not served in the military, said in an interview. “So I’m not too young to go and serve in Sacramento.”
Calderon portrays Bermudez as an old political hand who is disconnected from the district — his wife and children live in Sacramento — and resorts to dirty tricks such as setting up an anonymous attack website that features impolitic Facebook posts from Calderon’s college days.
“He is the epitome of everything I am running against in this corrupt political culture,” Calderon said.
Although Ian Calderon worked on some of his father’s campaigns, he concedes that politics is a recent interest. He sought to make his professional mark elsewhere. After graduating from Cal State Long Beach in 2009, he was a marketing manager for a company that sponsored his college surfing career, and also formed a talent agency to represent athletes.
He and a friend produced a reality TV show called “Surf Stars,” a series on professional surfing, and pitched the idea to MTV. But MTV took a pass, and Calderon took up politics.
In 2010, Charles Calderon referred his son to a fellow assemblyman, who hired Ian as a field representative for $50,000 a year. After he was able to help an unemployed woman secure benefits, the younger Calderon said, he was hooked.
“I knew it from there,” he said. “Not only can I help her but so many others in my community.”
Campaigning with authority, however, is a challenge. Announcing his candidacy in a video on his website, Calderon looks stiff and glances off-screen while discussing poor public schools, soaring tuition costs and high unemployment. He speaks from a chair patterned with the faces of Che Guevara, John Lennon and Bob Marley.
In another video, captured at a candidate forum and posted on the Internet, Calderon fumbles a question about “single-payer,” or government-run, healthcare, finally acknowledging that he doesn’t know what it is.
Going door to door in a quiet neighborhood recently, between sometimes awkward conversations with voters, Calderon talked about the movie “Game Change,” expressing sympathy for its subject: Sarah Palin and her bumpy campaign for vice president. “You have to know everything on the spot,” he said.
His father has provided some time-honored advice. “Sometimes I encourage him to be a little more general in his comments,” the elder Calderon said.
Since 2006, Charles Calderon has given more than advice: He paid his son nearly $60,000 from campaign accounts, for website consulting.
Ian, who was a political science major, said he upgraded his father’s slapdash campaign site, occasionally bringing in others for the more technical work. “I was a facilitator,” he said, chewing on a Twizzler.
Some of the payments were made while the younger Calderon was employed full-time by the Legislature. Financial filings show that he failed to report the income to the state as required by law, amending his disclosure forms after declaring his candidacy.
“It’s a very complicated and confusing system that takes a while to understand,” he said. “As soon as I recognized the problem, I fixed the problem.”
Employing family members is legal, Charles Calderon said. “It’s not improper … if they do the work.”
He contended that other politicians also pay their relatives — including Bermudez, whose campaigns have paid nearly $28,000 to his wife, Nancy, since 2001. Rudy Bermudez said that the money reimburses his wife for office equipment she buys for his campaigns and that she is not on salary.
In his own legislative bid, Ian Calderon has paid his mother, Lisa, $5,000, listing her in his campaign reports as a consultant. His aunt, Leslie Rodriguez, gets $1,500 a month as campaign manager. He said his relatives are political professionals with deep roots in the district and provide a rare commodity in politics: trust.
“Who else can you trust more than family?” he said.