Spending trend

Assemblyman Ron Calderon burns through campaign cash on trips to Las Vegas

Assemblyman Ron Calderon’s spending habits are raising eyebrows around the Capitol.

Assemblyman Ron Calderon’s spending habits are raising eyebrows around the Capitol.

Courtesy Of Assemblyman Ron Calderon

Self-righteous Republicans often charge that Democrats are addicted to spending the taxpayers’ money. One Democrat, however, appears to be addicted to spending of another kind: campaign contributions. First-term Assemblyman Ron Calderon, D-Montebello, is blowing campaign cash so fast that he’s spent more money than he raised this year. Calderon raised $293,795 in the first three quarters of 2003, but he managed to spend $328,263 during the same period, state campaign-finance records show.

Although there’s no evidence that there’s anything illegal about what Calderon’s doing, it raises questions about how he should spend the money he raises. Campaign funds ostensibly are for a lawmaker’s re-election effort or to be used to help the party’s other candidates win elections. Accordingly, Calderon’s spending is also raising eyebrows among his peers in the Assembly Democratic Caucus. “They all sort of shake their head; they’re all just a bit incredulous,” said a legislative source. “And the word’s out among lobbyists that he’s hemorrhaging cash, so it’s going to be a lot harder for him to raise dough.”

After paying off more than half of the $102,000 debt he carried over from last year, Calderon went into the fourth quarter with just $25,926 cash in his two active campaign committees. By contrast, most of the other 15 first-term Democrats in the Assembly began the fourth quarter with far greater resources, with most balances ranging roughly from $50,000 to $150,000. Some of those same freshman Democrats also spent far less on fund-raising than Calderon did. Typical fund-raising expenses for those other members were $3,000, $9,000 and $14,000, but during the same period, Calderon spent a staggering $93,694 just to put on fund-raising events.

Calderon wouldn’t talk about his campaign expenditures, and calls to his office went unreturned. Paul Hefner, a spokesman for Assembly Speaker Herb Wesson, directed questions to Calderon and then hung up.

Calderon does have to run for re-election, but as an incumbent in a safe seat, he faces only a token challenge. Only one challenger has filed to run against Calderon in 2004, and she’s a Republican who’s not likely to be much of a threat. Because he’s safe, Calderon is expected to help out elsewhere. Assembly Democrats who aren’t facing any real challenge to re-election are asked to raise $26,000 for the caucus each. So far this year, several other freshman Democrats have done better than that, giving as much as $100,000, split between the party and ancillary efforts such as voter registration.

“The expectation is you’ll raise money, you’ll pitch in to the caucus, and you’ll be prudent about what you raise and spend,” said one Assembly Democrat who did not want to be identified by name. “Other people are slaving to do their share to keep the caucus operation going in the off year, so if he’s raising [money] and spending it and not doing his share, that’s a very bad thing.”

Calderon has been rumored to be the next chair of the Assembly Governmental Organization Committee, on which he currently sits, because he was one of a small group of caucus members who first backed Fabian Núñez for speaker of the Assembly. But Democrats say privately that Calderon doesn’t command much respect in the caucus, and he probably won’t end up with such a choice committee assignment. Governmental Organization is a top “juice committee,” so called because its chair is in a prime position to vacuum up contributions from liquor, gambling, horseracing and other interests whose business is under the committee’s purview.

“When those rumors came out, people were outraged,” another Assembly Democrat said of the news that Calderon might chair Governmental Organization. “They did not want that guy there, and they were going to talk to Fabian about it.”

And if there’s a perception that Calderon can’t hold on to his money, it’s more likely that he may be offered an impressive-sounding-but-unimportant post like caucus chair, which is where leadership often sticks loyal members who aren’t ready for prime time.

Calderon’s records don’t show him writing the same kinds of big checks to the caucus that his colleagues have, although totals for the last quarter of 2003 won’t be made public until early February. In the last quarter of 2003, Calderon also hosted three fund-raisers, which could put him back on track.

Even so, there’s a lot to look at on Calderon’s expense sheet that already has set tongues wagging around the Capitol—such as the assemblyman’s frequent trips to Las Vegas.

In March, Calderon spent $9,215 in campaign funds to take his staff on a three-day weekend retreat at the posh Venetian Resort Hotel Casino in Las Vegas. The total included $1,687 for lunch at the Bellagio and other meals; $1,685 for nine plane tickets; and $1,661 for other retreat expenses. That kind of pampering is unheard of in the offices of other lawmakers.

“My God, that’s a lot,” was one Assembly Democrat’s response on hearing about the retreat tab.

The retreat wasn’t Calderon’s only trip to Vegas this year. Calderon also invited prospective donors to watch a May 3 boxing match with him. According to a copy of the invitation reprinted in a newsletter for political insiders, the $3,200 “Prize fight package” included a one-night stay at the Mandalay Bay Resort & Casino, a reception with Calderon and an unnamed special guest, and one VIP box seat for the Oscar de la Hoya vs. Yuri Boy Campos fight. Calderon spent a ton of campaign money just to host the event. The hotel bill alone came to $15,969.

In June, Calderon offered supporters $1,500 tickets to join him in an Arco Arena luxury box for a concert by Christina Aguilera and Justin Timberlake. By contrast, most lawmakers hold modest fund-raisers at restaurants near the Capitol, which keeps overhead to a minimum, or stick to staid outings like a round of golf.

Calderon’s preference for lavish fund-raisers appears to be part of the reason he blows through so much cash. But he’s also ringing up hefty tabs at Sacramento restaurants. Calderon has expensed some of his priciest meals at politico hangouts like Esquire Grill ($301, $168 and $158), Simon’s ($169, $150 and $143), Frank Fat’s ($265 and $144) and Morton’s ($255).

Calderon also lists $1,112 in expenses identified simply as “flowers.”

Sacramento’s best-known money watchdog, Jim Knox of California Common Cause, says the law gives quite a bit of latitude on how campaign funds can be spent. “I guess that that’s really an issue between them and their campaign contributors, whether there’s a breach of faith between them. It’s important that donors have faith that [the money will] be used for what I think most donors intend, which is to get elected.”

Under the state’s Political Reform Act, candidates may use campaign funds only for expenditures that “are directly related to a political, legislative or governmental purpose.”

One of Calderon’s donors, California Independent Oil Marketers Association Executive Vice President Jay McKeeman, said his group doesn’t monitor how politicians spend the money. “We get a thank-you letter, and that’s pretty much our involvement in the specifics of their campaign finance,” he said. McKeeman hopes donations from his group’s political action committee won’t be squandered. “We would be concerned that anybody was not using our money for the purposes that it was intended for, which is to run their campaigns.”

Calderon, who worked as chief of staff to Assemblyman Ed Chavez, D-La Puente, before being elected, is part of a mini-dynasty of three brothers who all have occupied the same seat.

Chuck Calderon, first elected to represent the district southeast of downtown Los Angeles in 1982, went on to the state Senate and later made a failed bid for attorney general. He also had a history of racking up big bills—which ended up getting him in hot water with the Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC).

In 1995, the FPPC slapped Chuck with a $15,000 fine for failing to disclose $32,407 in expenditures. According to FPPC documents, some of the campaign money went for “modeling photographs, a costumed entertainer and a tennis outfit that were not related to campaign purposes.” Chuck was fined again in 2001, that time for $18,000. FPPC records show that Chuck improperly used campaign cash to pay for a limousine to take his family to a movie premiere, buy clothes for his wife and make a “a six-day stay with his family at the Hyatt Regency Lake Tahoe Resort and Casino in Incline Village, Nev.”

The Calderon brothers don’t just like to spend money—they also like to spend it on one another.

Another Calderon brother, Tom, occupied the Montebello seat from 1998 to 2002 and then ran unsuccessfully for state insurance commissioner. While he was still in the Assembly and running for insurance commissioner, Tom paid his brother Ron $27,000 in political-consulting fees during 2000 and 2001—at the same time as Ron was busy running for Assembly. After Ron took over Tom’s Assembly seat, Ron paid Tom $61,000 in political-consulting fees starting a few days after Tom lost the 2002 Democratic primary for state insurance commissioner. There’s no way to tell what kind of work either brother performed, because campaign-finance forms aren’t that specific.

SN&R caught up with Ron Calderon as he walked off the Assembly floor just before lawmakers left town for the holidays. He stopped to take a couple questions but turned to walk away as soon as he heard the word “expenditures.”

“I’m not going to answer any questions,” he grumbled. “It’s all on record.”

The expenses, of course, are listed on Calderon’s campaign-finance forms. But the question isn’t how Calderon spends money, it’s why he spends so much on expenses that apparently aren’t related to winning votes. Calderon wouldn’t say.

“It’s just operating expenses, just like any other member,” he said. “We all have to run for re-election.”

With that, he ducked into an elevator without taking other questions.

Clearly, Calderon’s operating expenses aren’t just like any other member. It’s all on record.