Capitol Alert

California Senate removes self-imposed campaign fundraising ban

Senate President Pro Tem Kevin De Leon, D-Los Angeles talks to members of the Sacramento Bee Capitol Bureau on Monday, March 2, 2015 in Sacramento.
Senate President Pro Tem Kevin De Leon, D-Los Angeles talks to members of the Sacramento Bee Capitol Bureau on Monday, March 2, 2015 in Sacramento.

With at least one vulnerable Democrat facing a serious re-election challenge, the California Senate voted Thursday to remove a fundraising blackout period instituted in the wake of a corruption scandal two years ago.

By a vote of 24-8, the Senate reversed the ban on members raising money from lobbyist employers during final budget negotiations and the last month of session, a time when lawmakers are typically voting on hundreds of bills that affect the wealthy interests who fund their campaigns.

Presenting the motion on the floor, Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León said it was necessary to allow members to defend themselves against “unprecedented millions of dollars pouring into our political system” from special interest groups and “threatening to drown out the candidates themselves.”

He also said it was unfair to “force our members to unilaterally disarm and play by a different set of rules” than the Assembly, which does not have a similar policy in place.

“I do so with reluctance as well as regret,” de León said.

The rule was implemented in 2014, following a tumultuous period in which two members were indicted on federal charges for taking bribes and a prominent Sacramento lobbyist received a record fine for hosting fundraisers at his home that exceeded state spending limits. A broader bill that would have encompassed the entire Legislature fell short.

At the time, de León said the fundraising blackout “ensures that members of the Senate are solely focused on legislative business during the most critical times of the year.”

But majority Senate Democrats are now faced with defending some members up for election this year, particularly Sen. Jim Beall, who is fighting off an intraparty challenge from Assemblywoman Nora Campos, a fellow San Jose Democrat.

As a member of the Assembly, Campos did not need to adhere to the ban, which was set to take effect Friday with the release of Gov. Jerry Brown’s budget revision. An independent committee funded by oil companies Chevron, Valero and others has also already spent more than $330,000 in support of Campos.

Beall joined seven Republicans in voting against the rule change. He said he had a “conflict of interest” in removing the fundraising ban, and “I didn’t ask for it, either.”

But Beall said he had not decided yet if, in the remaining weeks before the June primary, he would seek donations from interest groups whose money he would not have been able to accept under the fundraising blackout.

“We’re looking at what our resources are and what we need,” he said.

Seven Democrats abstained from the vote, including Sacramento Sen. Richard Pan, who said he did not “completely reject the idea” of the blackout period, but the current “situation is not tenable.”

Former Senate leader Darrell Steinberg, who spearheaded the fundraising rule, was supportive of the Senate’s action, though he maintained that the blackout period was a good policy.

“One of the most important jobs of a legislative leader is to protect his or her members. That’s why they elect you leader,” Steinberg said. “In the middle of an election season, it’s not fair to one side.”

Former Fair Political Practices Commission chair Dan Schnur advocated for a similar ban during his campaign for secretary of state two years ago. In an e-mail, he wrote that de León’s decision was “realistic” given Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon’s refusal to follow his lead.

“It’s unfortunate that Anthony Rendon has not been willing to display the same courage,” Schnur said.

Alexei Koseff: 916-321-5236, @akoseff