Capitol Alert

This ballot measure keeps bringing Bernie Sanders back to California

Bernie Sanders stumps for Proposition 61, a drug price measure on the Nov. 8 ballot in San Francisco on Oct. 15, 2016.
Bernie Sanders stumps for Proposition 61, a drug price measure on the Nov. 8 ballot in San Francisco on Oct. 15, 2016. Tomas Ovalle

Bernie Sanders and his political revolution can’t seem to get enough of California.

Plans are in the works for the Vermont senator to make another trip to the Golden State before Nov. 8 to stump for a statewide ballot initiative he’s made a top priority: Proposition 61. The measure would bar California government from spending more for prescription medications than the lowest price paid by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, prompting more than $105 million in drug industry spending to defeat the proposal.

Sanders, who recently stopped off in Los Angeles and San Francisco for a pair of rallies promoting Proposition 61, has emphatically confronted the powerful drug lobby in a variety of paid outreach efforts. The former presidential hopeful appears in two TV ads for the initiative sponsored by Los Angeles-based AIDS Healthcare Foundation, and he is starring in a 30-minute documentary-style video airing on CBS stations across the state at 10 a.m. Saturday.

“Prices are going up outrageously with no justification,” Sanders says in the paid program, “Your Money or Your Life.” “So you can walk into a drugstore tomorrow and find that the price you pay for the same medicine you’ve had for 20 years has been doubled.” He called it “an insane situation.”

Proponents through Oct. 22 had spent $14.4 million on the nationally watched measure, which is viewed as a referendum on the pharmaceutical industry’s large profit margins and influence with both political parties in Washington.

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While ballot initiative endorsements from politicians can be a mixed bag, proponents are putting huge stock in Sanders, believing that his popularity is helping move the needle in their favor – and shielding the initiative from an onslaught of drug company spending. Sanders received 46 percent of the vote in California’s Democratic presidential primary.

Sanders, who is closely allied with the pro-61 California Nurses Association, also made a high-profile turn on “Real Time with Bill Maher” to stump for the measure. He has sent email blasts urging support and wrote an op-ed that ran under the headline: “Stand up to Big Pharma greed. Vote yes on Proposition 61.”

Roger Salazar, a spokesman for Proposition 61, credited Sanders with activating his supporter network and increasing the campaign’s small donors.

“Bernie has been fantastic in terms of energizing young people to really care about this measure,” Salazar said. “From the way we look at it, he’s very popular here in California and is known as a respected figure in the fight against corporate greed.”

Sanders’ central role, and the lopsided spending in the ballot fight, is reminiscent of consumer advocate Ralph Nader’s backing for Proposition 103, the 1988 initiative requiring auto, home and business insurance companies to justify their rate increases.

Opponents, meanwhile, have countered with a variety of messages across more than a dozen ads. The “no” side has used military veterans, medical doctors, academic researchers and newspaper editorial boards to focus on the measure’s policy shortfalls and highlight the pending fallout should it pass.

“Senator Sanders gets to fly home to Vermont and won’t have to deal with the significant problems Proposition 61 will impose on California,” spokeswoman Kathy Fairbanks said Friday. “More than 200 California-based organizations representing millions of patients, doctors, veterans and others oppose Proposition 61 because it will increase drug costs, reduce access to medicines and hurt veterans.”

Christopher Cadelago: 916-326-5538, @ccadelago

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