Legislators in Sacramento typically fall in line behind party leadership, but freshman Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia, D-Bell Gardens, appears to have a pronounced independent streak.
I had a chance to talk with Garcia about her experiences as a political reformer, and her recent call for a fellow Democrat, state Sen. Ron Calderon of Montebello, to resign amid FBI allegations of corruption.
Garcia has a solid record fighting political decay. She took on the corruption in Bell, volunteering her time with the city’s recall campaign, which ended with every Bell council member being voted out of office.
Garcia said her co-volunteers then wanted her to run for office.
Running as a government reformer, Garcia beat Democrat Tom Calderon, a former Assemblyman and Sen. Ron Calderon’s brother, in the June 2012 primary. She then went on to win the general election against Republican Patricia A. Kotze-Ramos, 71 percent to 28 percent. Garcia’s Assembly District 58 covers Bell Gardens, Downey, Pico Rivera and Cerritos.
It’s interesting to note that Tom Calderon earlier this year announced plans to run in 2014 for state Senate to replace his brother Ron Calderon. But following the recent Al Jazeera story about the FBI case against Ron Calderon, Tom Calderon announced Oct. 23 he was dropping out of the race.
Federal authorities appear to be looking into Tom Calderon’s consulting practice and his clients. The FBI subpoenaed the Central Basin Municipal Water District and raided the Pacific Hospital of Long Beach — both clients of Calderon.
Garcia may take a long, hard look at that Senate seat.
Garcia and her district
Garcia was the spokeswoman for BASTA, the Bell Association to Stop the Abuse. Basta means “enough” in Spanish. The group was formed after the salary scandal in the neighboring city of Bell broke.
BASTA organized community forums, voter registration drives, and signature-gathering efforts to recall council members. Today Garcia said things in Bell are different. “In Bell, I’m still very engaged — very hands on,” Garcia said. “But I remember my jurisdiction.”
“I have a vision,” Garcia said. “Bell is now how to do it right — it’s the right model. They are in the right direction, with five all-new council members.”
Garcia said Bell now has its bank accounts online. The city council holds town hall meetings on the budget, and all meetings are televised and online. “There is still a long way to go. These people pay a crazy amount of taxes, and there are still 40 lawsuits against them,” Garcia said. “But I can take my position and help them — teach them to advocate for themselves.”
The conscience of the Democratic Party
It took guts for Garcia to call for Ron Calderon’s resignation from the Senate, even if she has her eye on his Senate seat.
I asked her how political corruption affects the public’s faith in elected leaders.
“Think about how our amazing country works,” Garcia said. “It’s based on trust.” Garcia said we enter into social contracts with the government for services, and in exchange we give up some of our freedoms.
“But when people in government deliberately break the rules, it corrupts the way our country and government works,” she said. “It’s not just about sending people to jail, it’s about the line of trust. Broken trust, from the top, teaches people they can do it too.”
If there are more legislators implicated in the Calderon scandals, Garcia said she would stand firm and speak out then as well.
“When this pledge is for any reason jeopardized, an officeholder has the duty to step away,” Garcia said.
What Cristina Garcia is doing differently
In my reporting from the floor of the Assembly, I’ve observed that Garcia doesn’t speak often during bill debates, but when she does, she adds to the debate and conversation. “I don’t need sound bites,” she said. “I don’t raise my microphone just to be heard.”
Garcia said she instead mixes it up in committee hearings, where the real debate is supposed to take place. “That’s where I’m feisty and confrontational. On the floor, I only speak if I can add a different perspective to the story, and how it impacts my district.”
Garcia said there were enough of the new Assembly members “who went against the grain” and got elected. They challenged longtime Democrats. “We are more emboldened,” she explained.
But she was warned about being too active. “I heard stories before I got here, but decided to do things my way.”
Garcia said the freshman class Assembly members has already changing the way things are done.
Garcia said she thinks elected officials need to be much more accessible, and mindful of their districts.
And she said, “People also need to be more educated about government’s process.” She said she just visited her parents yesterday. They talked about local political races and the hit pieces coming in the mail. “They believe it’s true,” she said.
And that bothers Garcia. “Stories like the Calderon situation add to that,” she added. ”I try to be a role model for the locals in my district, the behavior I want to see in the future.”
Black cloud over the Capitol
“As the unsealed FBI affidavit and subsequent news reports have revealed a legal whirlwind surrounding Senator Ron Calderon, I must speak out,” Garcia said in a press statement on Nov. 1. “It is with mixed feelings, but with strong conviction that today I ask Senator Calderon to step down from his office to allow this black cloud to be removed from over the Capitol and over the State of California.
“I fully realize that we must respect the presumed innocence of Senator Calderon, but the distraction caused by this case, in my own backyard and its long term implications are detrimental to the fabric of government and to the citizens that the Senator represents.”
She made an important point there about Calderon’s criminal case, in which he must be presumed innocent; and his seat in the state Senate, which has been compromised so much that he no longer adequately can represent his constituents.