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Worst Legislator in California, Part II 

Charles Calderon lets special interest groups ghostwrite his laws

Thursday, Jun 2 2011
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Page 2 of 4

Committees associated with the term juice include those that oversee gambling — "always No. 1," Ellis says, "followed by insurance, banking and finance and any committee dealing with gun control."

What about committees dealing with social services and foster care? Those "are not juice committees," Ellis says. Poor social service clients and kids caught in the foster care system don't give cash to politicians.

Ron, elected to his second state Senate term in November, chairs two committees with considerable juice, including the Senate Insurance Committee. Charles is on the commensurate Assembly Committee on Insurance and also sits on the Assembly Committee on Banking and Finance.

click to enlarge ILLUSTRATION BY FRED NOLAND
  • ILLUSTRATION BY FRED NOLAND

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Not to worry, Charles Calderon says. "The evil is in the heart, not the money. I have no evil in my heart."

Calderon says the dilemma he faces is: "You have to go out and raise money, and you're criticized for raising money from special interests, then voting on issues affecting those special interests. I'd rather have public campaign financing because I get tired of the criticism."

But not that tired.

A MAPLight.org analysis of campaign contribution figures provided by the National Institute on Money in State Politics (FollowTheMoney.org) shows the riches sent to the Calderons — and the interesting ZIP codes from which the money originated.

Charles Calderon's campaign contributions from Jan. 1, 2007, through May 17, 2010, totaled $1,116,396, MAPLight shows. Some 94.6 percent of that cash, just over $1 million, came from outside his district. One ZIP code really stands out as the neighborhood from which Calderon received a bonanza of contributions, adding up to $372,777. It came from the downtown Sacramento area, including the Capitol, 95814. Many of the 1,200 lobbyists who influence California legislators have a home, or an office, in ZIP code 95814.

No other legislator among the 120 in Sacramento has gotten as much cash from outside his district as Charles Calderon. His own constituents give him almost nothing.

MAPLight co-founder and Executive Director Daniel Newman says, "What we have in California is a broken system of money-dominated politics." A candidate awash in industry and other special-interest money "is more likely to stay in office, because candidates who vote in alignment with industry interests have more money to run for re-election."

The Calderons are experts at picking up campaign money by working both sides against the middle. MAPLight decided to connect the dots to see which wealthy interest groups handed cash to Charles Calderon within 30 days of his vote on a bill.

The group's findings strongly imply that Calderon is a key California practitioner of government-for-sale — something he strenuously denies.

Last year, Assembly Bill 2774 was introduced by a different legislator to give the Division of Occupational Safety and Health more power to enforce regulations and fine companies for violations.

On May 31, 2010, the California Association of Health Plans — an accident and insurance group — gave Assemblyman Calderon $1,000, hoping to influence him against AB 2774. San Diego Biotechnology, a products and research group, and the California Building Association, also opposed, each gave Calderon $1,000 a week before his vote.

On June 2, Calderon voted yes. Did that mean he'd stood up to the big money?

Not exactly. The real money magic began when groups thankful for his yes vote showered him with cash. Five days after Calderon gave his blessing to AB 2774, the Southwest Regional Council of Carpenters gave him $2,500. Six days after his vote, on June 7, the California State Council of Service Employees donated $3,900 to the Calderon campaign war chest.

The State Building and Construction Trades Council of California, which supported AB 2774, gave Calderon $2,500 nine days before the June 2 vote. Then on July 1, the trades council rewarded him another $7,800.

"All kinds of groups contribute to my campaign," Charles Calderon insists. "Some want to help a candidate. Some want to have a candidate over for dinner. Others, like unions, have broader agendas. Over half my money came from unions. I feel like I'm helping the common man."

Calderon admits he doesn't try very hard to raise money from his constituents. "These are poor people in my district," he says. "I don't know how they survive day to day."

One way people in his district survive is by applying for so-called payday loans at usurious interest rates that can top 400 percent annually, piling debt on the poor.

Calderon authored the 1996 bill that opened the door to payday lending in California, with a loan limit of $300. This year, Calderon wants to raise that limit to $500. He has no sponsor for Assembly Bill 1158, meaning no special interest is identified as having ghostwritten it.

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