Dan Walters

Dan Walters: California Senate hit by turmoil

Outsiders may see California's two legislative houses - the 80-member Assembly and the 40-member Senate - as duplicative bodies, essentially doing the same thing.

That's not an unreasonable view, especially since senators, once elected from geographic areas, now represent districts with equal populations. There are, however, sharp cultural differences between the two.

Assembly meetings are noisy, with lots of heated verbiage, but voting is usually robotic - majority Democrats vs. minority Republicans. The Senate is much quieter, more collegial, and while party is a big factor, there's a veneer of bipartisanship and senators are more individualistic.

The Senate's less predictable ambiance makes it a fertile arena for interest group lobbyists, who always seek fissures to exploit. And that's why turmoil in the Senate is drawing much attention.

The revelation that Sen. Ron Calderon, D-Montebello, is under FBI scrutiny, apparently involving some local water politics and his brother, former Assemblyman Tom Calderon, creates big doubt about whether brother Tom could inherit the family Senate seat next year.

Former Assemblyman Tony Mendoza, who also wants the Calderon seat, could benefit from the flap, and were he to win, it would nudge the Senate to the left.

The Calderon clan, including brother Charles, a former legislator, and Charles' son Ian, now an assemblyman, has been a wild card factor in Capitol politics for decades - friendly to business lobbyists and pariahs to liberals.

Another business-friendly Democratic senator from Los Angeles County, Rod Wright, will go on trial next month on felony charges relating to an allegedly false residence claim.

Meanwhile, Democratic Sen. Curren Price will soon resign to become a Los Angeles city councilman.

Democrats could lose a Senate seat in the San Joaquin Valley, vacated by the resignation of Michael Rubio. Republican farmer Andy Vidak came within a few dozen votes of winning the seat last month, and now will be vying with Democrat Leticia Perez in a runoff election in July.

Bob Hertzberg, a former Democratic speaker of the Assembly, announced that he's running for the Senate in the San Fernando Valley with the blessing of termed-out Sen. Alex Padilla.

Hertzberg was a strong business ally in the Assembly, and since leaving has complained, as a businessman, about the state's business climate. If he wins, it would tilt the Senate a bit to the right.

Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, meanwhile, also will be forced out by term limits next year and Los Angeles Sen. Kevin de León has been his assumed successor.

But with all of the turmoil - including the likelihood that Republicans will gain at least one seat next year - no one can predict how the Legislature's upper house will shake out.

Call The Bee's Dan Walters, (916) 321-1195. Back columns, www.sacbee.com/walters. Follow him on Twitter @WaltersBee.