Dan Walters

California Legislature’s ‘reform’ of campaign spending was phony

School children look at the statue of Queen Isabella in the rotunda of the State Capitol. One of the Capitol's least-known traditions, perhaps, is the mischievous, biennial tossing of coins by lobbyists into the crown of Queen Isabella on the final night of each legislative session.
School children look at the statue of Queen Isabella in the rotunda of the State Capitol. One of the Capitol's least-known traditions, perhaps, is the mischievous, biennial tossing of coins by lobbyists into the crown of Queen Isabella on the final night of each legislative session. Sacramento Bee Staff Photo

Artie Samish, the infamous lobbyist who wielded immense power in the state Capitol before and after World War II, practiced what he called “selecting and electing.”

His goal was to protect his liquor industry clients, and as he described it in his biography, “The Secret Boss of California,” he did it by helping certain legislators win and keep their seats, even if it meant defeating incumbents.

The amazing thing is that controlling the Capitol cost Samish, or his clients, so little. In those days, legislative campaigns typically cost a few thousand dollars for billboards, radio ads and window cards and even a few hundred dollars spent in the right place could make a big difference.

Even after Samish went to prison in the 1950s and even after voters adopted a full-time Legislature in 1966, campaigning for a seat still was relatively inexpensive – maybe $15,000 or $20,000 – and candidates typically collected funds from inside their districts through spaghetti feeds and other semi-social events.

California didn’t see its first $100,000 legislative campaign until the early 1970s, and it was for a seat that would, it was believed, determine whether Republicans or Democrats would control the state Assembly.

One big change in legislative campaign finance came almost a decade later, during a fierce, yearlong battle between rival factions of Democrats in 1980 for the Assembly speakership.

Both hit up Sacramento lobbyists for campaign money and were a bit surprised when their clients responded with big checks, certain that backing the winning side in the bitter battle would pay dividends later when it came to passing or killing bills.

Afterward, legislative campaign spending skyrocketed, much of it collected in lobbyist-oriented Sacramento fundraisers and/or funneled through legislative leaders, who practiced their own “selecting and electing.”

Voters passed a 1998 ballot measure limiting contributions to legislative campaigns, but to thwart it, Democratic leaders wrote a much weaker version that voters ratified in 2000 (Proposition 34).

While it ostensibly limits direct contributions to legislative candidates, it exempts spending by parties and outside interests – gigantic loopholes that have made direct spending by candidates almost inconsequential and outside spending on their behalf dominant.

The net result is immense spending on about a dozen key legislative contests this year, particularly Democrat vs. Democrat duels that affect the Capitol’s ideological tone, with only tiny fractions coming from donors inside the districts.

It’s not unusual for $5 million to be spent in one race, much coming from “independent expenditure” organizations supposedly disconnected from the candidates themselves.

The outside spending often pays for malicious personal attacks that beneficiaries can piously disavow because of that supposed disconnect.

Meanwhile, party organizations, in effect, launder money, receiving it from special interest groups, bouncing it around among various party sub-organizations and then spending it for or against a particular candidate without accountability for its source.

We would be better off removing the fallacious and duplicitous Proposition 34 limits and allowing candidates to collect and spend as much as they want – but with full and immediate disclosure so that they would be accountable for whose money they accepted and how it was spent.

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