State Sen. Ron Calderon and his brother Assembly Majority Leader Charles Calderon, carry on a family tradition every Thanksgiving. The brothers from Montebello hand out hundreds of turkeys to the less fortunate.
Next stop: Sacramento, where the brothers Calderon back laws that enrich payday loan companies, gambling interests, financial institutions, unions and others willing to pony up campaign contributions — laws that sometimes hurt their constituents, who may get only the turkey.
Emboldened by overflowing campaign coffers, the Calderon duo doesn't merely introduce bills designed to reap profits for huge special-interest groups. Many of the laws that bear the names of Charles and Ron Calderon are actually quietly ghostwritten by special interests who benefit from laws they've custom-designed — for themselves.
As bad as that sounds to those who believe in a government by the people instead of the almighty buck, in some ways, the brothers Calderon aren't all that special. Everyone — from the California Retailers Association to the Sierra Club — eagerly ghostwrites laws that benefit themselves or their views. There's even a special term for it, used by everyone from Gov. Jerry Brown to the Sacramento press corps.
Reporter Karen de Sa, of the San Jose Mercury News, revealed in a blockbuster series last July that 39 percent of all California laws proposed during 2007-08 were written not by lawmakers but by special-interest groups. And the ghostwritten bills, greased with campaign contributions, are far more likely to be approved by the full Legislature and signed by the governor than laws written by the elected representatives.
Charles and Ron Calderon got special attention in de Sa's series because they're awash in money given to them by the very ghostwriters whose laws they push.
Most reporters in the Sacramento press corps pretend this spectacle isn't important, and they rarely write about it. It's easy to become confused. In Sacramento, a legislator who introduces a bill is called the "author." But often, the Calderons and their political colleagues don't so much as lift a pencil. The pencil is controlled by political action committees, corporate executives or Sacramento's throngs of lobbyists, 1,200 strong, who use a public servant — say Ron or Charles Calderon — to push their law through committee votes and floor approvals.
In Sacramento-speak, the ghostwriters are called the law's "sponsors."
"How can you have a true democracy when you have a system of legalized payments to public officials who make the decisions that affect the very interests that make the payments?" asks Virginia Ellis, a member of the respected Little Hoover Commission, a state watchdog agency.
Formerly an award-winning investigative reporter, Ellis covered Sacramento for 20 years for the Los Angeles Times. "In Florida, you can't give money to public officials at certain times of the year — like when the Legislature is in session," she says. "In California, you can. People have accepted this as the way government operates."
Or have they simply stopped noticing? Three Calderon brothers — Charles, Thomas and Ron — have served in the state Legislature since 1983. In those three decades, there has been only one two-year period when one of the Calderon boys didn't hold a seat in Sacramento.
Bob Stern, president of the Los Angeles-based Center for Governmental Studies, says the Calderon boys "take turns getting into the Legislature and have been in power a long time. They fly under the radar — but every time I look at the Legislature, there's a Calderon in it."
In 2002, when middle brother Thomas Calderon decided not to run for re-election, baby of the family Ron ran for and captured Thomas' 58th Assembly seat, the one Charles now occupies. The 58th Assembly district includes East La Mirada, Pico Rivera, Montebello, Hacienda Heights and South San Jose Hills, plus parts of Downey, East Los Angeles, South San Gabriel, Industry, Rowland Heights and Whittier.
Ron's 30th Senate District overlaps Charles' 58th and includes South El Monte, Bell, Bell Gardens, Huntington Park, Montebello, South Gate, La Mirada, Pico Rivera, Commerce, Norwalk, Cudahy, Santa Fe Springs and Whittier. Several of these cities are in financial distress, notably Bell, where former City Manager Robert Rizzo is accused of using city coffers as his piggy bank. Montebello's troubles include a secret $1 million bank account being investigated by State Controller John Chiang.
Ron's website has a picture of him as Santa; Charles' website features a video with churchy organ music and his favorite moments speaking to the Legislature.
Why do special-interest groups seek out and funnel money to the Calderons? Not only are the two brothers willing to "author" laws they don't write a word of, but Charles and Ron both hold seats on so-called "juice committees" — the legislative bodies that consider bills that directly affect the bottom lines of the most powerful special-interest groups.