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.
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.
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.
On March 21, Calderon's AB 1158 contained a section that would protect the poor by regulating the misleading Internet come-ons for payday loans. But on April 13, Calderon replaced that language with a proposal to instead raise the borrowing limit from $300 to $500.
Critics say the new language virtually ensures that many of Calderon's financially vulnerable constituents become trapped in spiraling debt, and Calderon's friends, the payday lenders, would enjoy a new level of profits.
The state Assembly Committee on Banking and Finance approved the amended measure, with Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, the lone vote against it.
On May 4, the Assembly Appropriations Committee passed the payday loan bill, 11-1, with only Assemblywoman Holly Mitchell, of the 47th District, opposed. June 3 is the deadline for the Assembly to act on the measure.
“Payday loans are often used by those whose income won't get them from this week to the next,” says Mitchell, whose district includes South Los Angeles.
“Unfortunately, while they're paying off Paul, they're getting robbed by Peter — in the form of some payday lender's steep fee,” she adds. “We're already cutting safety-net protections for the most vulnerable among us, so I couldn't add this insult to that injury.”
The reward for Calderon has been significant. According to MAPLight, he received more in direct campaign contributions connected to the payday and title loans special-interest group — $31,450 — than any other member of the Assembly in the 2009-10 or 2010-11 sessions. In the state Senate, his brother Ron received the most from the payday group — $50,000.
The current $300 loans cost a fee of $45, the maximum allowed. But the fee is deducted from the loan, leaving the borrower just $255 — and beholden for $300. That must be repaid within two weeks.
The average payday loan customer takes out seven such loans each year.
Ron Calderon did not respond to interview requests.
Charles Calderon argues that the current $300 limit barely pays the bills. “There are people who think payday lenders are vultures,” he says. “I don't think I'm in a position to decide what [people's] reasons are for wanting these loans. I represent East L.A., and those people need that money when they need it, sometimes to save the family car. I grew up in East L.A. in a poor family. I know desperation. Desperate people do desperate things.”
The assemblyman bristles when he's accused of taking money for his vote, or as payback for carrying a bill for special interests.
“I might take money from a bank or a union, and then two or three years down the road I vote on a bill affecting that bank or union — and I get criticized because they gave me money years before.”
Not always “two or three years” later. As MAPLight.org points out regarding his yes vote on AB 2774, the big sums appeared in Calderon's campaign chest within days.
He also says that in all his years in Sacramento, “I have never seen an instance of quid pro quo in the Legislature. The dollars don't work that way in politics.”
But that's untrue on its face. Calderon's Sacramento colleagues have been convicted of racketeering, extortion, money-laundering, bribe-taking and other forms of corruption. State Senator Joseph B. Montoya was convicted in 1990, state Senator Alan Robbins in '91, state Senator Frank Hill in '94 and Assemblyman Pat Nolan in 1995.
Former state Assemblyman Chuck DeVore, a Republican now running for the Orange County Board of Supervisors, served as vice chairman of the powerful Assembly Revenue and Taxation Committee — a juice committee if ever there was one — when Charles Calderon was its chairman.
DeVore and Burbank-area state Assemblyman Mike Gatto are the sole California state legislators who refuse to “author” laws that are really ghostwritten by special interests.
Says DeVore: “I often went before a committee and I'd be there by myself. No staff. No lobbyists. Just me alone, and the committee chairman would ask, almost incredulously, 'Do you have a sponsor?' For God's sake, I'm the lawmaker. I don't need a 'sponsor.' Not a company, not a union. It's patronizing to think any worthy bill needs a 'sponsor.' ”
DeVore agrees with Calderon that trying to win a seat in the Legislature is difficult — if not impossible — without raising money from outside the local district.
Famed outlaw Willie Sutton “was asked why he robbed banks and he said, 'That's where the money is,' ” DeVore says. “The money is in Sacramento — and representatives go where the money is, with the least amount of effort.” But he also says, “Quid pro quo is illegal, but it seems like that's what's going on.”
Plenty of fellow Democrats are not enthusiastic about the way Calderon operates, although DeVore calls him “someone I could work with.” The mixed feelings arise from the way Calderon forces a power play, sliding from one issue to the next, sitting on the fence, voting along Democratic Party lines when it suits him and then along Republican lines when that's to his advantage — or to the advantage of special interests that funnel him money.
“A small group of Democratic legislators that includes Calderon can decide what happens in the Legislature because they [are willing to] band together with Republicans to hold a majority,” DeVore says. “Lobbyists have to pony up money to talk to him. So an inordinate amount of money is given to legislators like Calderon.”
David Futch can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Note: View this story at laweekly.com to read a list of Charles Calderon's Top 10 Special-Interest Backers.