Lately, some national news outlets have been pointing to California as a beacon of effective government for the rest of the country.
An NPR host opened an interview with Gov. Jerry Brown a few days ago by saying: “Not long ago, the state was in economic crisis. … Now, many in the nation’s capital are looking to the state – and its governor – for what lessons Washington might learn from Sacramento.”
“California Democrats, an historically ineffectual bunch, are finally learning how to wield their majority power,” a New Republic columnist wrote in July.
Yes, Brown and legislators have tamed the budget, for now, thanks to voter-approved initiatives to raise taxes by $6 billion a year and pass budgets by simple majorities.
But the Capitol has an underbelly, and it goes beyond Sen. Ron Calderon, the Los Angeles-area Democrat who is a target of an FBI investigation. The investigation isn’t happening in a vacuum.
Take a look at recent Fair Political Practices Commission fines against Sacramento denizens who know better.
The FPPC, a part of state government that does work well, imposed a $60,000 fine on Democrat Dean Florez, a former Kern County legislator who has contemplated running for statewide office. Among his transgressions, he used $26,541 in leftover campaign funds to pay for personal expenses.
Those included purchases at retailers including Walmart, itself a violation of Democratic orthodoxy, plus gasoline and monthly parking passes, fireworks, a concert and a SiriusXM radio subscription.
It must be hard to pay for mundane expenses after getting them as perquisites of office for all those years.
Then there are “consultants” who avoid publicly registering as lobbyists.
Jason Kinney worked in Gov. Gray Davis’ administration and for former state Sen. Don Perata before becoming a consultant who provides advice to President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, Senate Democrats and private interests. The FPPC fined him $12,000 in September for failing to register as a lobbyist.
A week before the FPPC action became public, Kinney was working with a lobbying team representing billionaire Progressive Insurance Chairman Peter B. Lewis, who advocates legalizing marijuana.
In that capacity, Kinney helped draft a press release in anticipation that the Legislature would approve a bill to regulate and further expand and commercialize medical marijuana.
The press release became part of the detritus of the legislative session when the bill stalled on the last night of the session. But the release contained proposed quotes from legislative leaders, including Steinberg. That raises the question: Was Kinney’s loyalty to the lobbying team that represented the billionaire, or was it to Steinberg and Senate Democrats?
Lines often become blurred in this town.
Thanks partly to advice from Kinney and others, Steinberg has been making the right moves in the days since the cable news outlet Al Jazeera America obtained an FBI affidavit and reported allegations that Calderon used his position to influence legislation in exchange for payments.
Steinberg had appointed Calderon to various committees; that’s part of a leader’s job. On Tuesday, the Senate Rules Committee, which Steinberg chairs, stripped the Montebello Democrat of his coveted Senate Insurance Committee chairmanship and other assignments. That, too, was appropriate.
Legislators are distancing themselves now. But for more than a decade they enabled Calderon. Even if every word in the 124-page FBI affidavit is false, insiders knew Calderon was skirting the law.
His proclivities became widely known in February 2004 when the San Francisco Chronicle exquisitely detailed how he spent his campaign money: $1,200 on cigars, $287 on women’s clothes and accessories, a Christina Aguilera concert, a trip to Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas to watch an Oscar De La Hoya fight.
The FPPC fined him in 2010 for failing to disclose “gifts” including spa treatments for his wife at Pebble Beach costing $1,077, courtesy of the Association of California Life and Health Insurance Companies.
Insiders understood Calderon was more of a glutton than other lawmakers. But he also had a vote, basic barter in the Capitol bazaar. That culture comes into clear focus in the closing days of legislative sessions when lawmakers decide hundreds of bills and raise millions of dollars.
Donors gave at least $6.6 million this August and September to legislators, legislative candidates and Democratic and Republican party committees, plus $480,000 to Brown, my reading of campaign finance data shows.
Calderon held an “end of session burger bash” at Chops, across from the Capitol. He apparently didn’t raise much; the FBI had raided his office in June. But he did collect $15,000 for his legal defense fund in August, including $5,000 from Pacific Gas and Electric Co.
Contributors don’t donate because they believe in good government. They owe a duty to their bosses, their companies, their unions and their shareholders. Of course, they expect something in return.
Follow Dan Morain on Twitter @DanielMorain.