Dan Morain

Dan Morain: Bullying by pols creates a backlash

Published: Sunday, Aug. 5, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 1E
Last Modified: Sunday, Aug. 5, 2012 - 3:59 pm

William Tolson exercised his fundamental constitutional right by downing Chick-n-Minis at the Chick-fil-A restaurant in Elk Grove the other day, and then brought mor chikin home for his wife and three kids.

Throngs of anti-boycotters like Tolson flocked to Chick-fil-A franchises last week in a show of support for Dan Cathy, the once obscure president of the fast food chain who ran afoul of gay rights advocates by declaring his fidelity to "the biblical definition of the family unit," and donating millions to groups that oppose same-sex marriage.

In a stunning misuse of their position, some big city politicians, pandering to their supporters, threatened to employ the tools of government to block the chicken franchise from expanding or operating in their towns. But they're not the only one officials who have been afflicted by a case of hubris lately.

Assembly Republican Leader Connie Conway, meet San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and other big city Democrats who seem to have an inflated sense of their status.

Conway sent Tolson and 300 other people letters on Assembly Republican Caucus letterhead in which she made clear that she knew that they had donated to Republican Andy Pugno, a Folsom attorney who hopes to unseat Republican Assemblywoman Beth Gaines, who is Conway's preferred candidate for the Sacramento-area seat.

Conway used campaign finance reports filed publicly with the secretary of state to identify Pugno's donors and obtain their mailing addresses. In the letters, Conway noted that Pugno promised during the primary that he would suspend his campaign if he came in second to Gaines. Pugno did place behind Gaines, but is rethinking that pledge.

"As Assembly Republican Leader," Conway wrote, "I hope you will join me in urging Andy Pugno to keep his pledge and suspend his campaign, so we can all come together and restore conservative leadership to the state."

No doubt, some Republicans would be pleased if Pugno went away. He authored Proposition 8, the 2008 initiative that banned same-sex marriage in California. Of course, most Republicans, Gaines included, embraced Proposition 8.

But if Pugno were to win the Assembly seat, Democrats would make regular use of him to remind voters that the Republican Party is exclusionary, which would push the once-Grand Old Party further into irrelevancy in this state.

There are other layers of hypocrisy in Conway's letter. In recent years, conservatives have filed numerous lawsuits attacking requirements in state and federal law that campaign donors be publicly identified, claiming that donors, fragile beings that they are, risk harassment and worse.

Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas lamented the attacks in his dissent in the landmark 2010 Citizens United case, in which the high court allowed corporate and union donations to campaigns run independently of candidates.

"Disclaimer and disclosure requirements enable private citizens and elected officials to implement political strategies specifically calculated to curtail campaign-related activity and prevent the lawful, peaceful exercise of First Amendment rights," Thomas wrote.

Thomas is alone among the justices on the question of disclosure, for now. But his position has political support. In 2010, the California Senate Republican Caucus issued a briefing memo criticizing disclosure provisions in the California Political Reform Act.

"Unfortunately," the paper says, "these well-intended 'sunshine' measures are now being misused for nefarious purposes. Instead of being used to simply inform voters, the disclosed information is now being used to harass, intimidate, victimize and ultimately violate the First Amendment right of citizens who express their opinions through campaign donations, both large and small."

California Senate Republicans made the same points in a follow-up memo earlier this year entitled, "The Dark Side of Disclosure."

Apparently, Assembly Republicans didn't get the memo.

Conway, who didn't return my calls, made no threat against Pugno's donors. She knows better than that. Truth be told, the California Republican Party is nearly insolvent and doesn't have much power these days. But Conway is an elected official who leads other elected officials.

There's not much difference between her letter and threats leveled by big city politicians against Chick-fil-A, noted James Bopp, the Indiana attorney who has led the nationwide legal assault on disclosure on behalf of conservatives.

"She is showing she cares and, because she cares, she will use her power," Bopp told me. "She is saying, 'I care, and I have government power. If you want to cross me, do so at your peril.' "

None of this is to suggest that politicians should duck the issues of the day. Too many are too craven and fail to lead by example. But in their rush to pander to their supporters, they should think twice about using their position to attempt to intimidate. Ultimately, they will fail.

Tolson gave Pugno $200 during the primary. On the day he ate his Chick-n-Minis, he told me that Conway's letter made him want to give more money to Pugno, assuming Pugno decides to run, a decision the candidate says he hasn't yet made.

"I don't feel intimidated," Tolson said. "I'm just disappointed. For Connie Conway to be using letterhead is pretty heavy-handed."

I've never eaten at a Chick-fil-A, and don't plan to start now. Like the chicken franchise owner, Pugno fails to grasp that marriage is a fundamental right. If I lived in Pugno's district, I wouldn't vote for him. But that's my call. I don't need some self-important politician to bully me into it.

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