Faux-freshman Calderon will take aim at term limits, initiative process

Conventional wisdom holds that freshman legislators often take on less-challenging bills while they learn the ropes. Newly-arrived Assemblyman Charles Calderon, D-Montebello, has a slightly more ambitious agenda: a full-scale effort to gain back much of the power he believes the Legislature has lost in recent years.

Or course, Calderon already has logged more than a dozen years as a state legislator. But that doesn’t make his agenda any less difficult. At the very top of his list is getting rid of term limits–taking the law to court on constitutional grounds if necessary.

The second phase is to make it harder for people to use the initiative process to fill the state constitution with “junk.” He plans to hold hearings on the initiative process in order to help formulate legislation on initiatives. Possible changes include demanding pre-election hearings on the economic impact of an initiative and demanding a higher signature threshold for initiatives that would draw on the General Fund.

“I don’t believe that anyone with a million dollars ought to be able to hijack the spending authority of the state,” he said.

The combination of term limits and an out-of-control initiative process, Calderon said, “is destroying our constitutional form of government.” He added, “There is clear evidence it has made our Legislature an unequal branch of government.”

Calderon’s former chief of staff Kelly Jensen said he isn’t surprised his former boss is biting off so much. He said that he believes Calderon would rather fail at this agenda than succeed at a less ambitious one.

“He didn’t come here to do something incremental,” Jensen said.

With eight years in the Assembly and another five in the Senate, Calderon already has served longer than he would be allowed under term limits. Because his Assembly service predated the 1990 terms-limits law, he’s eligible to serve a full six years in the Assembly.

“He’s well-positioned to go for the Ralph Dills record,” joked former Assembly colleague Richard Katz. Dills served over 40 years in the Legislature, becoming a high-profile term-limits victim in 1998, at the age of 88.

But because he came into the Senate via a special election and served a partial term, Calderon is not eligible to run for Senate again. At 55, it appears that his career in the state Legislature still could be cut short by limits.

One way around term limits, of course, is to create a political dynasty. The Calderons are one of the more successful political families in the state. Brothers Thomas and Ron held the Assembly District 58 seat for four years each before Charles took it back; Ron is now in the state Senate.

Is there another wave of political Calderons coming? It’s hard to know, Charles Calderon said; the younger generation is still mostly school-aged. Though his 21-year-old son, Nick Calderon, has shown some aptitude for the showbiz aspect–he’s a professional surfer and has appeared on the MTV dating show Next.

But it’s his political past, not the family’s future, that he must deal with first. Calderon was a member of a well-known group of moderate legislators dubbed the Gang of Five. Along with Gary Condit, Steve Peace, Rusty Areias and Gerald Eaves, Calderon challenged powerful Speaker Willie Brown–and earned the mistrust of many fellow Democrats.

His contrast with many other Democrats was enhanced by his carrying of bills like the Drug Dealer Liability Act and the Sex Offender Tracking Act. For a California Democrat, his campaign contributions are light on labor and heavy on business interests–especially insurance companies and developers. Calderon said he hasn’t decided whether he’ll join the Democratic Moderate Caucus, or Mod Squad, though he admits he’ll be considered a mod no matter what.

But Katz said business ties are no longer viewed with suspicion in the Democratic Party. Another Democratic Assemblyman from that era also agrees that Calderon’s past won’t count against him.

“Almost no one is remembered for long in the modern political environment,” Phil Isenberg said. “That’s ancient history.”

In some ways Calderon may have moved more into the Democratic mainstream. In his previous tenure, the League of Conservation Voters named him part of their “polluter PAC.” This time around, Calderon said he was endorsed by the League, not just in the general election, but also in a primary where he faced several other qualified Democrats. Assembly Speaker Fabian N

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