Dan Walters

Dan Walters: Family connections loom large in California politics

Dan Walters
Dan Walters

Ralph Dills served in the California Legislature for 42 years, and during part of that time, his brother Clayton was also a legislator.

Such a familial connection in the Capitol was very unusual until about two decades ago, when legislative term limits kicked in.

Term limits, coupled with the evolution of well-oiled political machines in metropolitan areas, had the unintended consequence of fostering political dynasties.

Politicians staked out territorial franchises and when forced to vacate offices would often bequeath them to sons, daughters, brothers, spouses or other relatives. And the syndrome has not been confined to the Legislature.

Just the other day, for instance, a 20-something man named Sebastian Ridley-Thomas was elected to the Legislature in a sparsely patronized special election because his father, Mark Ridley-Thomas, a former legislator and current Los Angeles County supervisor, cleared the path for him.

He will join a slightly older Ian Calderon, the scion of another Los Angeles County political family, in the Assembly. The Calderon clan includes uncle Ron Calderon, a state senator now under federal investigation, and Ron’s two brothers, including Ian’s father, who are former legislators.

One Calderon or another has represented the San Gabriel Valley for three decades and could be in office for at least another decade.

The familial pipelines saturate the state’s politics, starting with Gov. Jerry Brown, who probably would not have been elected to his first stint as governor had he not been the son of a former governor, Pat Brown. Sister Kathleen was state treasurer and ran for governor herself.

Several other members of the Legislature are the offspring of former members, such as Sens. Anthony Cannella, Tom Berryhill and Steve Knight and Assemblymen Kevin Mullin and Brian Nestande. However, unlike Ridley-Thomas or Calderon, all came to the Legislature years after their fathers had left.

While Ted Gaines serves in the Senate, wife Beth Gaines occupies his former seat in the Assembly.

And so forth.

There’s nothing wrong, per se, with relatives of politicians seeking political office, but it’s also evident that in many cases – the Calderons, most obviously – family connections are the beginning and end of qualifications.

Does anyone doubt that Ian Calderon or Sebastian Ridley-Thomas, both scarcely out of college and with scant real-world experience, would not have been elected to the Legislature without family connections that produced campaign funds and cleared away the opposition?

Anointed relatives get head starts in campaigns, enjoy tremendous advantages over their potential rivals and don’t really have to prove themselves worthy for office. They may turn out to be effective politicians, or not, but the outcomes are mere happenstance.