It’s happy hour at the Fairmont Kea Lani.
Just past four on Sunday afternoon, former state Sen. Rod Wright settles in at the lobby bar for the mai tai that he insists should kick off any trip to Maui.
Rex Frazier, president of the Personal Insurance Federation of California, wanders in and they share a laugh over dinners past at Ella in Sacramento, where Wright’s favorite vodka was always stocked. Frazier raves that Wright must try the Molokai Mule cocktail.
“I’m not reportable,” Wright joked, referring to financial disclosure forms that legislators are required to fill out, “so I can eat and drink as much as I want.”
The California Independent Voter Project’s annual conference has once again arrived at this $360-a-night hotel on Maui’s southwest shore, bringing together 21 lawmakers and dozens of corporate sponsors for five days of policy discussions and schmoozing.
Ditching suits and ties for shorts and polos, attendees rotate through morning panels covering subjects such as drug buyback programs and the digital divide in poor households. Hawaiian shirts are in disappointingly short supply. During open afternoons, they are free to relax and explore the island, often with spouses and children who have tagged along for the week.
This type of travel is nothing new for California legislators, who have been venturing overseas for decades on the dime of business groups, labor unions, foreign governments and their campaign donors. Just this year, the state Senate led study trips to Japan, Mexico and Australia, while more junkets went unannounced.
Yet the Independent Voter Project conference, with its luxurious Hawaiian setting, has become something of a lightning rod for criticisms about the cozy relationship between lawmakers and special interests.
“Nobody thinks you’re going to Maui to learn things,” said Jack Pitney, a professor of politics at Claremont McKenna College. “If the purpose of the trip were to educate lawmakers about the problems of California, they would go to Fresno.”
The Independent Voter Project provides legislators an average of nearly $2,500 in airfare, hotel rooms and food to attend the conference. Last year, it spent $55,503 to bring 20 members to Maui, according to financial disclosure statements filed with the Fair Political Practices Commission. A few pay their own way or use campaign funds for the trip, and they must cover the cost of taking their families.
Meanwhile, sponsors pay $7,500 to participate, gaining intimate access to a full sixth of the Legislature that will soon be voting on bills affecting their industries.
Some groups spend more. The California Correctional Peace Officers Association, the California Manufacturers and Technology Association, the Western States Petroleum Association, FedEx and AT&T were among those who collectively paid $7,190 last year to wine and dine lawmakers at private dinners and receptions.
Attendees, who fill 125 rooms at the Fairmont, say the conference provides an opportunity to get away from the Capitol bubble and develop connections beyond the transactional nature of day-to-day policymaking. The relaxed atmosphere, they say, also allows them to consider issues more broadly than the specific changes proposed in bills.
The lobby bar, bridging the airy atrium foyer to a central courtyard with three pools and a rolling view down to the ocean, becomes a favorite gathering spot. On any given evening, lawmakers and corporate representatives chat late into the evening, long after the in-house musician has packed in his acoustic guitar covers of “The Girl From Ipanema” and Lionel Richie’s “Hello.”
“It opens the door for relationships,” said Assemblyman Frank Bigelow, R-O’Neals, who said he also planned to spend time with a daughter who lives in Hawaii. “If that makes us better legislators, then I don’t see the problem.”
Founded in 2006, the Independent Voter Project is a nonprofit that promotes a less polarized, more centrist approach to governing by empowering nonpartisan voters.
Backed by corporate donors such as the pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly and the Pacific Gas & Electric Co., as well as wealthy individuals like businessman Charles Munger, IVP runs a news site and was behind the 2010 ballot initiative that gave California its top-two primary system.
The conference began seven years ago as a fundraiser for the then-relatively new group, board chairman Dan Howle said. A veteran of similar Maui confabs that have dotted the California political calendar for decades, he chose the beachside setting to draw in participants: “It’s my hook.”
But Howle said his goal is ultimately to help fix a “completely horrible” legislative process, where discussions are reduced to two-minute sound bites from opposing sides at a committee hearing and there is little opportunity for learning.
Each year, he invites a bipartisan list of members, chosen for him by one Democrat and one Republican lawmaker, to participate in a series of interactive 90-minute sessions moderated by groups like the California Cable and Telecommunications Association, the California Business Roundtable and the Civil Justice Association of California.
Though the lineup is heavy on business interests – Howle said he is trying to convince SEIU to come next year – he hopes disagreement among members on the information presented will get them talking and then collaborating back at the Capitol.
“When I retire in a few years, I want to have had a small part in making the Legislature better,” Howle said.
The Independent Voter Project has made a huge investment in that goal: Over the past five years, it spent more than $184,000 bringing 75 lawmakers to the conference, according to financial disclosure forms. Many of them are repeat visitors.
Sen. Tom Berryhill, R-Twain Harte, has attended every conference since 2010. Not including this year, he accepted $13,662 in travel expenses from IVP along the way, as well as $2,375 worth of gift meals and golf fees from groups like the prison guards union, PG&E and Prime Healthcare Services.
During that same time, Wright, Sen. Isadore Hall, D-Compton, former Sen. Steve Knight, R-Lancaster, and former Assemblyman V. Manuel Perez, D-Coachella, all made four appearances. Perez is now a member of IVP’s board of directors.
Another 14 lawmakers took multiple trips to Maui, including former Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez, Assembly Republican Leader Kristin Olsen, and the Calderon brothers, Ron and Charles.
All of this is completely legal: No public funds are used for the trips. Lawmakers can accept up to $460 worth of gifts per source each year, as long as it’s reported in a year-end financial disclosure form that eventually becomes public. Travel reimbursements are not subject to that limit if they are made in connection with a speech or panel appearance by the legislator.
But there is still a sense of secrecy about the proceedings.
Howle barred The Sacramento Bee from attending the panels, saying some participants were not comfortable with a reporter observing the discussions. After several requests, he shared an agenda, but declined to provide a list of sponsors. Lawmakers never announce ahead of time that they will be at the conference, and many at this year’s event brushed off questions about what they got out of the experience.
“Some of them are terrified” that they’ll be criticized and have it end up in a campaign ad against them, Howle said. “That’s a legitimate concern.”
Last November, for example, during an expensive and contentious Ventura County congressional race, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee ran commercials hitting former Assemblyman Jeff Gorell, R-Camarillo, for his 2013 trip to Maui, portraying him as a man “living the high life on Hawaiian vacations sponsored by oil and tobacco companies.” He lost to Rep. Julia Brownley, D-Thousand Oaks, by fewer than 5,000 votes.
The potential blowback doesn’t faze everyone.
Olsen said she encourages her caucus members to attend as many conferences as possible. A third-year veteran of the Independent Voter Project event, she said she most valued the opportunity to form relationships with lawmakers from across the aisle. She has become good friends with Assemblyman Adam Gray, D-Merced, and their children play together while they are busy in sessions.
“Politics is a business of relationships,” Olsen said. “Conferences like these can build trust.”
The occasional “seeds” of legislation make their way back to Sacramento, she added. Olsen pointed to her Assembly Bill 1764 from two years ago, an idea to promote computer science education in schools that was sparked by hearing about the shortage of programmers.
Assemblywoman Cheryl Brown, D-San Bernardino, said her focus was on jobs, and meeting people who might be able to bring resources back to her “very poor district.”
Assemblyman Jim Cooper, D-Elk Grove, declined to discuss his participation as he headed off to his room for the night.
California Manufacturers and Technology Association President Dorothy Rothrock was among those leading a panel on economic development. She said she aimed to highlight the increased cost of doing business in California, the shift of investment capital away from the state, and a loss of middle-class manufacturing jobs. Rothrock’s organization opposed 14 of the 19 bills the California Chamber of Commerce this year deemed anti-business and placed on its influential “job killer” list, including those to raise the minimum wage and expand family leave.
Rothrock was quick to draw a distinction from what happens back in Sacramento, where a lobbyist might get 15 minutes with a lawmaker or their staff to try and convince them how to vote on a particular bill. She said months of work went into her presentation, which she considered a service to attendees.
“I’m not lobbying. I’m providing fundamental information about manufacturing,” Rothrock said. “If I wanted it to benefit me, I would come with my long list of bills.”
It may not make much of a difference to voters, who see moneyed interests able to buy a different seat at the table than they get, Loyola Law School professor Jessica Levinson said.
“It strains common sense to think that a special interest would fund a lawmaker’s trip to Hawaii and the lawmaker wouldn’t feel some modicum of gratitude,” said Levinson, who is president of the Los Angeles Ethics Commission.
Legislators vehemently reject such a characterization.
“Especially on the left, whenever someone loses, they want to say it’s because the whole system is corrupt,” said Wright, who resigned from the Legislature last year after being convicted of eight felonies for lying about where he lived when he was elected. Now retired, he was attending the conference as a friend of Howle’s. “Maybe I just thought your idea was bull–.”
Sen. Anthony Cannella, R-Ceres, said he is constantly meeting advocates with conflicting perspectives and the notion that “we’re going to be swayed by the sponsors here is naive.”
Taking a rest stop on the beach during a bike ride Monday afternoon, Sen. Bob Wieckowski, D-Fremont, said he came to Maui for a second year to play his own game of influence.
Proudly noting that he was one of the most liberal members here, he said the conference gave him a heads-up on the issues that business interests are looking at next session and a chance to do some “bellyaching” in return to influential figures like Western States Petroleum Association President Cathy Reheis-Boyd, with whom he shared a glass of wine.
“I see them when they’re going after my bills,” Wieckowski said. “But I don’t get to have those discussions with them where I say, ‘Well, did you think about this?’ ”
A large group returning from a snorkeling excursion on a catamaran paraded past on the way to their cars, and Wieckowski stopped to get a rundown from Assemblyman Rob Bonta, D-Alameda, and lobbyist Greg Hurner.
Then he hopped on his bike to finish up his ride before an evening golf outing with representatives from AT&T.