That Sen. Kevin de León remains a serious contender to become the next leader of the California Senate may seem surprising given the events of the past six months.
His name is mentioned 56 times in an FBI affidavit alleging that Sen. Ron Calderon accepted $88,000 in bribes from an undercover agent and a hospital executive.
De León himself accepted $5,000 in campaign contributions from the agent.
Yet de León, the son of a housekeeper who grew up in a San Diego barrio, is pressing on in the intraparty competition to become one of California’s most powerful elected officials.
“My colleagues are very smart,” he said. “They will measure me based on my merits, and not anyone else’s.”
During his eight years representing Los Angeles in the Legislature, de León has pressed the concerns of immigrants, low-wage workers and families suffering from gang violence. He has championed bills that restrict the sale of ammunition, improve energy efficiency in schools, expand urban park space, give driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants and require overtime pay for domestic workers.
His effort to create retirement security for private-sector employees has attracted national attention, garnering editorials in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and an article in Roll Call – the paper for political insiders in the nation’s capital – that called him a “rising star.”
After building a public policy record, learning from a failed attempt to become Assembly speaker and becoming, in his own words, “a better person,” de León says he’s ready to replace Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, who must leave office later this year because of term limits. The pro tem controls the flow of legislation in the house and raises money to elect members of the caucus.
De León says the job would put him in a better position “to help improve the human condition for the millions of Californians who are still left behind.”
As the Legislature returns to the Capitol Monday, de León first will have to get past the drama of the last seven months, in which he has figured prominently in the federal corruption investigation of Calderon, his Senate colleague and fellow Democrat.
A leaked federal affidavit describes de León dining with the undercover agent he believed to be a movie studio owner. It lays out de León’s positions on legislation the FBI was investigating, including a bill to extend a tax credit for filmmakers and another that changed the amount hospitals could be reimbursed for implanting spinal hardware during surgery on workers’ compensation patients. It suggests that de León brokered a deal between Calderon and state Sen. Ricardo Lara that involved transferring $25,000 from a political campaign account to a nonprofit group run by Calderon’s brother.
No charges have been filed in the case. De León said he returned $5,000 to the FBI as soon as he learned the contribution came from an undercover agent. Federal prosecutors have written a letter that says de León is a witness, not a target, in their investigation. And California’s political watchdog has decided not to investigate de León, saying there is no evidence he played a role in the $25,000 payment to Calderon’s brother’s group.
De León’s supporters say allegations in the affidavit reflect Calderon’s fictional boasting. They say supporters of de León’s main opponent for the pro tem position, Sen. Mark DeSaulnier of Concord, are unfairly using the Calderon scandal to cast doubt on de León’s ability to hold the post.
That’s the combative nature of politics, said Jessica Levinson, a law professor at Loyola Law School who sits on the Los Angeles Ethics Commission.
“Is (Calderon) such a tainted figure at this point that just being associated with him is problematic, or are people really innocent until proven guilty?” she said. “The law and politics are different things. ... Politics is a lot more about appearances.”
De León says he’s confident his colleagues will judge him on his accomplishments as they ponder whom they want to lead the upper house.
“We’re horrified (about) the allegations in the affidavit. It pains us that one of our own has been accused of corruption,” de León said. “At the end of the day, there will only be one individual who will be held accountable, if in fact these allegations are proven to be true. That one individual is Sen. Ron Calderon.”
Shaped by poverty
De León, 46, has had his sights set high since he entered the state Capitol as an assemblyman in 2006, following a career as an immigration activist and labor organizer. At the time, his close childhood friend Fabian Núñez was speaker of the Assembly.
De León ran for speaker in 2009, losing to current Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez, amid concerns that de León was too self-focused and impatient. In 2011, he helped kill a high-profile bill Pérez pushed to dissolve Vernon, a tiny city that had been riddled with corruption and fell in both of their districts.
Losing the speakership to Pérez “was one of the great things to happen to me,” de León said, acknowledging he didn’t feel that way at the time.
“Quite frankly, I grew up a lot, ” he said. “I listen more, I’m much more patient – much more patient. I move forward the interests of my colleagues, to help them move forward with their policies, their goals, their ambitions. I really just immerse myself and focus on policy.”
De León said the policy areas he cares most deeply about stem from his experience growing up as a “ fronterizo” – a child of the border who routinely crossed back and forth between San Diego and Tijuana. His father wasn’t around. His mother was often behind on rent. He recalls her telling the family to “ cállense” – hush – when the landlord came knocking on their door. She died of cancer at age 54.
“As the youngest child of a single immigrant mother with a third-grade education ... that had a large impact on me,” de León said. “I know poverty because I’ve lived poverty.”
As a child, de León would ride the bus with his mother to her job cleaning houses in tony seaside communities.
As a senator, de León twice shepherded an Assembly bill to give overtime pay to domestic workers. When he introduced the bill on the Senate floor in 2012, de León acknowledged dozens of Latina housekeepers watching from the balcony above.
Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed the bill by Assemblyman Tom Ammiano in 2012 and signed a revised version of it in 2013.
De León’s aunt, 76, still works as a housekeeper. Her financial situation inspired his Senate Bill 1234 that creates a board to study the feasibility of automatically enrolling private-sector employees in a retirement savings plan that sets aside a portion of their wages unless they opt out.
“She has no retirement security, has built up no assets over her lifetime,” de León said of the aunt he considers a second mother. “We have millions of Californians who are working their fingers to the bone, who will eventually retire when their bodies physically give out – their arms, their legs, their shoulders, their waist – and they can no longer work.”
Immigrants a key focus
De León, single with a 19-year-old daughter, has talked about the need for more retirement security in his role as a fellow at the Aspen Institute in Colorado. There, politicians from across the country attend seminars on leadership and dive deep into discussions on history and philosophy.
“The first session I had, admittedly I felt insufficient. I had not read ‘The Peloponnesian War.’ I had not read Socrates. I had not read Aristotle,” de León said. “All these folks were from Brown and Yale and Georgetown, summa cum laude.”
De León began his college education at the University of California, Santa Barbara, but said he got kicked out after three quarters on academic probation. He wound up graduating from Pitzer, a private school that is part of the Claremont College network, where his friend Núñez was studying.
As teenagers together in a tough part of San Diego, Núñez said he thought his own family “lived in the worst place,” a two-bedroom apartment facing the freeway. When he visited de León’s home, though, Núñez said he realized his friend’s family was even poorer than his.
“He was living in somebody’s basement,” said Núñez, now a partner at Mercury Public Affairs who offers strategic advice to companies that lobby the Legislature. “He didn’t even have an address there.”
Both men went on to work for a group that helped immigrants prepare for citizenship and in 1994 together helped organize a massive march in Los Angeles opposing Proposition 187, a measure that sought to cut back the services available to immigrants in the country illegally.
Nearly 20 years later, a desire to help undocumented immigrants continues to fuel de León. He represents what he considers the “most diverse district on planet Earth,” including L.A.’s Koreatown, Chinatown, Little Armenia, Thai Town, Filipinotown as well as neighborhoods full of Mexicans, Guatemalans and Salvadorans.
Last year, when it appeared in the final week of the legislative session that Assemblyman Luis Alejo was going to shelve a bill to give driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants, de León rammed the bill through the Senate after a tete-a-tete with the governor. Advocates were divided over whether the license should carry a mark differentiating undocumented immigrants from legal residents.
Lawyers and academics might have time to debate the marks on a license, de León said he told Brown, but parents taking their kids to school just want the right to drive.
“He said, ‘If you send me the bill, I’ll sign the bill,’ ” de León recalled. “So we purposely did not inform Mr. Alejo what was going to happen. ... We said we’re going to force the question, whether they like it or not.”
Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck, who has collaborated with de León on various gun control measures, said the senator is unusually integrated with the communities he serves.
“A lot of times the more area you cover in government, the less connected you are to the voters or the roots. But I don’t find that with Kevin,” Beck said. “The first time I went to his office I was actually shocked where it was. A lot of people would pick a downtown office or a high-rise office.”
Instead, Beck said, de León’s district office is a storefront in Echo Park, a largely poor and Latino neighborhood.
Groomed for leadership
Although de León identifies with the downtrodden, he also has lashed himself to some of the most elite Californians. He worked closely with billionaire Tom Steyer to pass Proposition 39 in 2012. The measure changed the state’s corporate tax formula to fund energy-efficiency renovations in public schools.
De León brought Hollywood stars Halle Berry and Jennifer Garner to the Capitol last year to testify in favor of his bill to make it harder for paparazzi to shoot pictures of children.
And Steinberg appears to be grooming de León to be the next Senate leader. He named de León chairman of the powerful Appropriations Committee, making him the first Latino to head the key committee in both houses of the Legislature. The position gives de León huge say over which bills get a vote on the Senate floor.
Steinberg sent de León to the Super Bowl in New Orleans last year to attend an intimate fundraiser for Senate Democrats. For the handful of lobbyists whose clients paid for them to attend, the trip involved a private plane ride across the country with de León, lodging with him in a French Quarter vacation home and tickets to watch the San Francisco 49ers play the biggest game of the year.
It was another fundraiser at a boxing match in Las Vegas that wound up connecting de León to the undercover FBI agent who went by the pseudonym Rocky Patel.
The FBI affidavit describes Calderon asking the undercover agent – whom he believed to be a movie studio owner seeking a tax break for his productions – if he would pay for them to attend that December 2012 fundraiser for de León, a boxing fan.
The agent sent Calderon an email, the affidavit says, asking if he could ensure de León’s support for amending the film-tax-credit bill in exchange for a campaign contribution. Calderon wrote back admonishing the agent for trying to buy de León’s vote.
“However, I am sure he will appreciate your support very very much,” Calderon wrote, according to the affidavit. “At the end of the day you are investing in the future leader of the Senate (with) whom you are building a very good relationship.”
Campaign-finance reports show that Rocky Patel sent de León two donations totaling $5,000 on Dec. 28, 2012.
The affidavit that had been sealed by the courts became public in late October when Al Jazeera America published it online. Within days, de León’s campaign staff hand-delivered a $5,000 check to the FBI, said his chief of staff Dan Reeves.
“We didn’t want that money,” de León said. “Once we found out what the source of the money was we returned it immediately. It’s just common sense.”
De León said he is “seriously considering” introducing a bill this year to alter the rules on political fundraising. His ideas include banning fundraising during deliberations by the Appropriations Committee and the full house.
The Legislature needs to move past the Calderon affair, de León said, and work to instill “trust and confidence for the public in their institutions.”