First, Democrats hoping to protect one of their own passed a law changing the rules for a recall.
Now they are pressuring the state’s campaign watchdog to reverse a longstanding stance on contribution limits to once again benefit Sen. Josh Newman, who Republicans are seeking to punish for casting a vote to raise state gas taxes.
In 2002, the California Fair Political Practices Commission adopted a regulation that said state candidates are subject to contribution limits when they give money to a recall committee controlled by another state candidate. The FPPC interprets the law to mean that state politicians can’t give the Fullerton Democrat more than $4,400 each to fight his recall.
Roughly 15 years and two recall elections after the agency took the position, Senate Democrats are arguing the FPPC got it wrong. They say candidate committees should be able to give unlimited sums to a candidate-controlled recall committee, which would allow Newman to rely on fundraising by colleagues to help fend off the Republicans gunning for him. Democrats had the Legislature’s government lawyers study the issue, and on June 27 Legislative Counsel Diane Boyer-Vine issued an opinion predicting that courts would uphold a reversal of the FPPC’s longstanding interpretation.
A lawyer working for the caucus appeared at the agency’s monthly meeting last week to request that commissioners reverse the interpretation.
“Unlike the perpetrators of this fraudulent recall attempt, Senate Democrats are committed to properly interpreting and adhering to the law...” said Jason Kinney, a spokesman for Senate Democrats. “Given the exigency of the issue, it seems logical and appropriate that the bipartisan FPPC would want to consider the matter quickly.”
The position reappeared on an FPPC fact sheet in 2003 during the successful recall of Democratic Gov. Gray Davis, according to a letter written by the commission’s executive director Erin Perth earlier this month. The agency reiterated its position again in an advice letter to lawyers during an unsuccessful recall campaign against then-state Sen. Jeff Denham, a Republican, in 2008.
During the Denham recall, the firm Bell, McAndrews & Hiltachk, working on behalf of Republicans, similarly disagreed with the FPPC position.
Thomas Hiltachk, whose firm was hired this year by the GOP proponents of the Newman recall, said the agency’s interpretation has been on the books for more than a decade and there’s no reason to change it now. He said Democrats should take the issue to a judge or pass a law in the California Legislature if they think the agency is wrong.
“Based on what we’ve seen over the course of the last two weeks, Newman should have no problem getting the Legislature to do whatever it takes to protect him from the voters in the 29th Senatorial District,” Hiltachk said.
Last week Gov. Jerry Brown signed a law to change the rules governing recall elections. The new law effectively adds months to the existing timeline to certify a recall election for the ballot and ensures that the recall election would be held during the June primary next year, when more Democrats are likely to cast votes.
The issue of campaign contributions ignited a testy debate between some of the commissioners at the monthly FPPC meeting on Thursday.
Richard Rios, an attorney for Senate Democrats, implored the commissioners to expedite a review of the opinion and draft a new regulation given the time-sensitive nature of the recall. Last week the state Republican Party announced that it had submitted to county election offices nearly 85,000 signatures to recall Newman. That’s 20,000 more than necessary to force a vote.
Jodi Remke, chair of the FPPC, cited concerns about violating open meeting laws. She said the agency should not be required to take swift action given that Rios’ request came in just days before the commission met. Items must be on the FPPC agenda for 10 days before a meeting, among other rules governing public notice.
“I do not see the benefit of rushing it at this point when it was not rushed on their side,” Remke said.
Others offered a more sympathetic ear.
Commissioner Maria Audero, an employment law attorney in Los Angeles, questioned staff members about the fastest possible route to resolve the issue, including whether the agency could hold an emergency meeting to take it up. The FPPC’s July meeting had been canceled because it conflicted with the agency’s upcoming move to a new office.
Commissioner Brian Hatch, a longtime lobbyist for the California Professional Firefighters, also wanted to speed up the timeline.
“Similar to ‘justice delayed is justice denied’, late money is not very helpful in an election,” Hatch said. “The longer we take, the more chance the person who is affected is going to be hobbled by people of extreme resources who will have no limits on how much they can spend to try to recall the legislator in question.”
In the end the commission agreed to revive the July meeting, which would make it possible for the commission to move forward with a new regulation in August.