Political mailers are filling mailboxes all over California, thanks to a bumper crop of contentious ballot measures and the most competitive array of legislative and congressional seats in decades.
Most of those cardboard missives are just propaganda for and against particular candidates and measures, but in the last two weeks of the campaign, many are "slate mailers" that purport to represent sage advice from cultural or ideological groups.
Don't be fooled. The vast majority of slate mailers are commercial enterprises, and the positions they take depend entirely on which side of an issue or which candidate paid the money to appear.
Take, for instance, two slate mailers that were delivered simultaneously a few days ago to voters in the eastern suburbs of Sacramento, locale of two hotly contested races for the Legislature and Congress.
One was slugged "COPS Voters Guide," featured a motif of what appeared to be law enforcement badges, and generally followed the Democratic Party's positions on ballot measures and candidates, including Democratic congressional candidate Ami Bera and Ken Cooley, a Democrat running for the Assembly.
The other came from "Budget Watchdogs," and mostly supported Republican Party positions and candidates, including Bera's Republican foe, Rep. Dan Lungren, and Cooley's GOP opponent, Peter Tateishi.
It took some digging to reveal that the "COPS Voter Guide" is actually the creation of a Sacramento political consultant, Kelley Moran, who didn't return phone calls.
"Budget Watchdogs," meanwhile, was created last year by Rex Hime, a one-time Republican political aide who now heads the California Business Properties Association and who did respond to a call.
Budget Watchdogs is a nonprofit corporation, and Hime says "I don't get squat" from the money it collects for its various projects, including the mailer. "It's not a commercial enterprise," he added.
Nonetheless, virtually all of the recommendations in the "COPS Voter Guide" and all of them in the Budget Watchdogs mailer reflect money paid to the organizations by those whose positions they took.
We know that because state law requires recommendations for those who paid for inclusion in mailers to be marked by asterisks.
There's an even darker side to the slate mailer business and it is, for the most part, a business the extortion practiced by many slate mailer operators, although not necessarily these two.
They tell campaigns that if they don't pay to have their candidates or ballot measure positions "recommended," their opponents will be promoted for free.
Regardless of the underlying motives for slate mailers, it's a grubby trade based on assumptions about the gullibility of voters.