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Calderon to Persist in Efforts to Curb Speaker's Power

December 08, 1988|MIKE WARD | Times Staff Writer

Although he lost his bid to become Speaker of the California Assembly, Charles Calderon (D-Alhambra) said he will persist in efforts to curb the powers of that office and to reform the legislative system even if it means working for passage of a Republican-sponsored initiative.

Assemblyman Willie Brown (D-San Francisco) won an unprecedented fifth term as Speaker on Monday, turning back the challenge of a coalition of Republicans and five dissident Democrats, including Calderon. Brown got 40 votes in the 80-member Assembly while Calderon received 34.

Calderon, a 38-year-old attorney, shook hands with Brown after losing the election but said that act did not signal an end to his challenge to Brown's leadership. All it meant, he said, is that "I'm not a bad loser."

It was nearly a year ago that Calderon and four other Assembly Democrats rebelled against Brown and formed what the press dubbed "The Gang of Five." They began working with Republicans to pass legislation Brown opposed and called for reforms to weaken the Speaker's power.

Gained Support

Brown not only survived the challenge but picked up additional allies in November's elections.

Nevertheless, Calderon said he considers the Gang of Five effort successful because it has brought legislative reform to the forefront.

He noted that even Brown has said he will support changes in the way the Assembly is run and has appointed a committee headed by Assemblyman John Burton (D-San Francisco) to make recommendations. Calderon said he is skeptical about Brown's support for reform and in a letter to Burton termed the committee's preliminary proposals "a clever and skilled rubber-stamping procedure that in reality further concentrates power in the Speaker and his friends."

Calderon said he is optimistic about the prospects for legislative reform, however, because Democrats apart from the Gang of Five are demanding it.

If the Legislature does not produce meaningful reform, he said, he will support Assembly Minority Leader Ross Johnson's proposal to reform the Legislature through the initiative process.

In an interview in his Montebello office last month, Calderon said that by putting legislative reform at the top of his agenda, he is responding to the desires of voters in his district.

'Don't Give Up'

"Everyone says, 'Don't give up. Keep fighting.' That's what people want. They don't want to elect people to go up to Sacramento to lay down for an office. They want people to go up and raise hell for the right reasons."

Calderon compared the way the Assembly works now to what he saw of the Communist Party when he visited the Soviet Union in a cultural exchange program in 1985.

"The way the Speaker runs the Assembly has many similarities to how the Communist Party works," Calderon said.

"In the Soviet Union, the only means of upward mobility is through participation and advancement in the Communist Party," he said. Those who are loyal, do as they are told and don't challenge those above them move up, he said.

"That's exactly the way the Assembly works. If you don't challenge the Speaker, don't vote against him, don't embarrass him and do as you're told, why, then you'll move up in the Assembly hierarchy."

Susan Jetton, Speaker Brown's press secretary, dismissed Calderon's assertion that the Assembly operates like Soviet politics. Brown, she said, "has never, never said that people have to agree with him." But Jetton added, Brown has told lawmakers that if they want to chair committees they should support his direction "on procedural matters."

For example, she said, in the last legislative session Brown appointed Republican Assemblyman Larry Stirling of San Diego as chairman of the Public Safety Committee, even though the liberal Brown often disagreed with the conservative Stirling.

When told that Calderon is continuing to assail Brown's policies, she said: "I'm sorry Chuck is doing this. The Speaker began the day after the election and has continued . . . to bury the hatchet and say 'let's work together.' "

Calderon rose to the post of majority whip under Brown and was a member of the powerful Ways and Means Committee. He authored major bills opening California to interstate banking, requiring environmental testing near landfills, and regulating firms that help consumers obtain credit.

Calderon said that even before he joined the Gang of Five, Brown "perceived me as a threat to him and constantly attempted to co-opt me by handing me more titles and assignments, more public praise and that kind of thing. When he realized he wasn't making any difference, he took the opposite tack and tried to take everything away."

Fall From Power

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