Top fundraisers among rookie California legislators win key Assembly posts

Published: Tuesday, Dec. 18, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 1A
Last Modified: Tuesday, Jun. 4, 2013 - 6:18 am

They haven't passed a single law, but already some rookies in the California Legislature's massive freshman class have proved adept at one priority: soliciting campaign cash.

The Democratic Party's 11 top freshmen fundraisers, all Assembly members, raised $1.2 million for party coffers this year – and 10 of them later were chosen for committee chairmanships or legislative leadership posts.

The freshman class is sure to be watched closely because it is the Legislature's largest since 1966. Rookies can now serve up to 12 years in either house, and the Democratic Party has supermajorities for the first time in more than a century.

Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez declined to comment, and a spokesman said he did not weigh fundraising when making appointments.

But 91 percent of the freshmen who raised five- or six-figure sums for the party through Oct. 20 received plum roles, compared to less than 50 percent of those who solicited little or no money.

Committee chairmanships and leadership posts generally bring lawmakers larger staffs, bigger office budgets and more influence over policy and help generate even more campaign contributions.

Phillip Ung, policy advocate for California Common Cause, said Pérez's recent appointments reflect the importance of money in the system.

"I think you can easily draw the conclusion that these people are being rewarded for playing the money-in-politics game," he said.

The message sent to lawmakers, Ung said, is that "you need to go back to the special-interest trough and keep getting as much money as possible, because that's how you stay in power."

Nonsense, countered John Vigna, Pérez's spokesman.

"There's absolutely no consideration whatsoever to fundraising in appointments to committee chairs or leadership positions," Vigna said. "When the speaker makes these decisions, he makes them in the context of who can do the best job serving in that particular position."

Pérez encouraged Democrats to raise money for the party and its candidates, but he never linked it to appointments, Vigna said. "Those are two separate issues."

Jared Huffman, a newly elected congressman, was termed out of the Assembly weeks ago as chairman of the Water, Parks and Wildlife Committee.

He said committee chairs understand that they have an obligation to raise money for their party.

"There's no question it's one of the (appointment) factors," he said. "It's not the only factor, but it's one of them."

The party-fundraising tradition extends to both parties, to both houses, and to veterans as well as rookies, records show. Lawmakers are entitled to donate unlimited sums to the party, but only $32,500 of that can be used for a single race.

The Assembly's top two freshmen fundraisers for the Democratic Party and its legislative candidates were Anthony Rendon of Los Angeles, $225,095, and Chris Holden of Pasadena, $187,665. They were named assistant majority floor leader and majority whip, respectively.

Of the nine other Assembly freshmen who raised five-figure sums or more for the party, only Adrin Nazarian was not chosen for a leadership post or committee chairmanship.

He will serve on the Rules Committee, whose members typically receive an office budget subsidy.

One of the committee chairmanships went to Ian Calderon, a six-figure party contributor who was elected to his first public office. The 27-year-old son of termed-out Assemblyman Charles Calderon started the year as a low-level legislative aide but now chairs the Arts, Entertainment, Sports, Tourism and Internet Committee.

Kimberly Nalder, director of the Project for an Informed Electorate at California State University, Sacramento, said the long-term impact of placing 10 top fundraisers in key positions is that it perpetuates the influence of major donors.

"It's a mutually beneficial scenario," Nalder said. "The donors end up with continued access to people who have powerful positions."

Trent Lange, president of the California Clean Money Campaign, said voter cynicism rises over such appointments. "It elevates money above ideas, and that's not the way it should be," he said.

Vigna said the Assembly speaker bases appointments strictly on merit.

Take Rendon, for example, a former college instructor and executive director of a nonprofit child development services program.

"(Pérez) views Mr. Rendon as somebody who can do the job very well, who can hold the caucus together," Vigna said.

"Certainly, we have a number of difficult issues that we're going to work through this year, so you want folks who have the respect of their colleagues."

Success at fundraising can be a sign of other desirable traits – persuasiveness, aggressiveness, someone determined to hit the ground running – that can elevate a new lawmaker's image, some political analysts said.

Aides from only two of the 11 top fundraisers returned calls to The Bee. Both declined comment and referred calls to Pérez's office.

Of 17 Democratic freshmen who did not send five-figure sums to the party, Pérez chose three for his leadership team and five for chairmanships of policy or budget committees.

The Senate has not yet named committee chairs and has only one freshman who has never held legislative office in years past, Democrat Richard Roth of Riverside. He did not raise money for the party this year.

Bob Stern, former president of the Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles, said fundraising may not be the ideal yardstick but it is objective and signals that someone has support from many different groups.

"Money is a very important part of winning an election," Stern said, "and a very important part of succeeding with your colleagues."

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

Read more articles by Jim Sanders



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