Capitol Alert

That political mailer on your kitchen counter isn't what it seems

The "Woman's Voice Newsletter" leads with an endorsement of Travis Allen, a Republican assemblyman once accused of sexual harassment, as California's next governor. Sen. Ricardo Lara, Allen's liberal opposite, gets a nod for his insurance commissioner bid on the same slate mailer.

Another piece of campaign mail, called the "Progressive Voter Guide," backs Antonio Villaraigosa. He's running a gubernatorial campaign considered further from the left than any other top Democrat in the race.

How did the candidates earn endorsements on the slate mailers piling up in your mailbox? Simple. They paid for them.

Slate mailers, an age-old election practice in California, aren't exactly what they seem. Groups with names that sound like legitimate advocacy organizations often sell their endorsements to candidates, regardless of where the person stands politically. Sometimes the nods are given away for free, too. State law requires the mailer to carry an asterisk next to names of candidates who paid for the spot.

"It’s the most efficient way for a candidate who cannot afford television to reach voters," said Robert Stern, one of the state's foremost campaign finance experts, who wrote the Political Reform Act.

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Stern said candidates buy slates to increase name recognition and influence voters at the polls. He doubts that most voters understand the financial arrangement but questions whether it really matters.

"I think most voters throw them away anyway," Stern said.

The California Fair Political Practices Commission defines a slate mailer as a mass mailing of more than 200 pieces sent in a month that support or oppose four or more candidates or ballot measures. An information box on each slate mailer denotes the group who put the ad together and explains the meaning of the asterisk next to a candidate's name.

Groups qualify as slate mailer organizations if they receive at least $500 a year, but many typically make much more.

Take "Woman's Voice," described as a project of the Policy Issues Institute, for example.

Allen has paid the Laguna Niguel organization $29,797 this year to appear on slate mailers, according to a state filing. Lara's slots cost him $28,378. In all, "Woman's Voice" reported receiving payments totaling nearly $400,000 this year alone.

"It's important that voters be reminded that candidates are paying their way," Stern said.

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