Monday’s legislative swearing-in ceremonies made it official: Democrats had restored their two-thirds supermajorities in both houses of the Legislature.
The achievement rested heavily on millions of special-interest dollars moving to and from political party campaign committees, state filings show, effectively avoiding candidate contribution limits and obscuring the true source of the money.
Intricate money shifts have been a bipartisan feature of California’s campaign landscape for almost two decades, ever since voters passed Proposition 34. The 2000 ballot measure established political contribution limits, but the fine print elevated state and county parties into wheelhouses for campaign money.
So while businesses, unions and other donors could directly give a maximum of $4,200 per election to legislative candidates this year, they could give unlimited amounts to state- and county-based political party organization. Up to $35,200 could be passed on to a single candidate – eight times the direct contribution limit. The main rule is no coordination between the donors and candidates.
More than two-dozen Democratic and Republican party committees received almost $23.6 million in the three months before the Nov. 8 election. Top donors included the tobacco-industry opponents of Proposition 56, a California Hospital Association committee, the California Realtors Association and AT&T.
Party committees in turn gave more than $32 million to some three-dozen candidates for the Assembly and Senate during that time, state filings show. The top recipients were Al Muratsuchi, D-Torrance, and Sharon Quirk-Silva, D-Fullerton, former members who won rematches against the Republicans who defeated them in 2014.
In no contest did party money play a larger role than in the upset win of Fullerton Democrat Josh Newman, whose 2,498-vote victory sealed Democrats’ 27-seat supermajority in the state Senate.
Newman’s previously low-budget campaign reported $2.4 million in itemized contributions during the final three months of the campaign, with about 92 percent of the money coming from the California Democratic Party, the San Luis Obispo County Democratic Party, and six other county parties around the state.
Those parties, in turn, took in big checks from dozens of major Capitol interest groups, including AT&T, the California Teachers Association and California Professional Firefighters. It’s impossible to know how much of any donor’s contribution ended up in Newman’s campaign account.
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