Old-timers will recall Corum’s Liquors, conveniently located on J Street, a short walk to the Capitol.
V. John White does. He had come to Sacramento in 1974 as an eager young staffer and watched wide-eyed as cases of Corum’s finest arrived in legislators’ offices, courtesy of lobbyists seeking to spread a little cheer.
“The food and booze was the lubrication,” said White, who long ago left the legislative staff to lobby for environmental causes and companies. “The scale of it was so small.”
We can’t have any of that now. Ethics laws passed over the decades greatly restrict the largesse that lobbyists can bestow on legislators, directly.
But in 2016, lobbyists – the ones who are officially registered and many more who are not – deliver independent campaigns to re-elect legislators who have voted their way and defeat the ones who didn’t, and provide a path to victory for up-and-comers who will, they hope, support their interests.
The consultants work for oil, tobacco, gambling, public school employees, nurses, plaintiffs’ attorneys, doctors, insurance companies, the Service Employees International Union, the California Teachers Association, charter school advocates and many more.
Independent expenditure campaign consultants provide mail, TV, radio and internet ads, and all the other accoutrements of modern campaigns, including potholders emblazoned with the candidate’s name and get-out-the-vote efforts on Election Day.
“The IEs have become the campaigns,” said Democratic campaign consultant Andrew Acosta, a rarity who is not doing independent expenditure campaigns this year.
Consultants date the rise of independent campaigns to the so-called reform, Proposition 34 of 2000, which promised campaign contribution limits. It did cap contributions, but only to candidates, not to political parties or independent campaigns.
Combined, independent campaigns have spent no less than $23.7 million so far to elect or defeat candidates in eight Democratic seats, and a smattering of Republican seats, for jobs that will pay $104,115 next year.
For businesses that come out on the losing side, legislation can cost untold millions. Making an investment of a few hundred thousand in elections worthwhile, or so the logic of Sacramento goes.
There’s almost no difference in how moderate and liberal Democrats vote on social and civil rights issues. But mods are more closely aligned with Republicans on taxes than with liberals. Some will break from Democrats who support labor on bills aimed at the business practices of big-box stores.
In the race for the Assembly seat that includes Yolo and Napa counties, Winters Mayor Cecilia Aguiar-Curry has raised a mere $150,000 for her campaign, significantly less than her better-known Democratic opponents, Yolo County Supervisor Don Saylor and Davis Mayor Dan Wolk.
No matter. Tobacco, oil, charter school advocates, and other inside players have selected Aguiar-Curry as their candidate, and have spent $2.3 million to elect her.
Minnie Santillan, a long-time Assembly staffer, moonlights as a campaign consultant and is working for an independent campaign funded by Realtors and others backing Aguiar-Curry. Donors hope she would listen to their arguments if she prevails. “But it’s not a promise,” Santillan said.
The rules say consultants working on independent expenditures cannot coordinate with candidates. They must be, as the name implies, independent, but only from the candidates, not from the interests that fund them. That suits consultants just fine.
“I can’t even talk to the candidate. That is heaven,” said veteran consultant David Townsend. He oversees Californians for Jobs and a Strong Economy, which is funded by AT&T, PG&E, Chevron, farmers, pharmaceutical companies and many others, and seeks to elect business-oriented Democrats.
Townsend described the selection process: Consultants and the representatives of moneyed interest grill candidates to get a sense of where they stand on core issues. Doctors, dentists and insurance companies, for example, support candidates who pledge to defend the law that caps medical malpractice awards. Plaintiffs’ lawyers support candidates who seek to ease those caps.
People outside San Francisco might see little difference between San Francisco Supervisors Jane Kim and Scott Wiener, the Democrats who are running for the state Senate seat being vacated by Mark Leno. How wrong they would be.
One of the independent campaigns backing Wiener is Equality California, a defender of LGBT rights. Equality California took $70,000 from Townsend’s independent campaign committee, which took money from, gasp, Chevron. For that, Wiener is weathering attacks from Kim. Wiener calls himself a passionate believer in climate change who would have enthusiastically voted for legislation last year to cut petroleum use in half.
As a supervisor, he voted to ban homeless camping in San Francisco and authored an ordinance that greatly restricts public nudity in the city. Such stands are enough for business groups to see hope for Wiener.
“It is relative according to the district,” Townsend said.
In the 1930s and ’40s, before he was sent off to McNeil Island Penitentiary, legendary lobbyist Artie Samish, who represented liquor, gambling and tobacco interests, perfected the notion of “selecting and electing” legislators. Select your candidate, elect him – there weren’t many women candidates in his day – and your work was all but done.
“I didn’t care whether he voted against free love or for the boll weevil,” Samish wrote his 1971 book, “The Secret Boss of California.” “All I cared about was how he voted on legislation affecting my clients.”
Samish has departed this realm and Corum’s Liquor store is long gone. And this town is so much cleaner now.