California Forum

Viewpoints: Questionnaire quagmire: Secret promises fuel legislative dysfunction

A recent national study ranked California’s Legislature as the most polarized in America – twice as gridlocked as the notorious U.S. Congress.

The abysmal rating might shock voters, but it wouldn’t surprise long-time Sacramento observers. More and more, our legislators seem locked into their own corners, fixed into unmovable positions, unable to connect or compromise. How did it get so bad? And more importantly, how can we fix it?

One surprising – and seemingly innocuous – culprit is the innocent-sounding and ubiquitous “candidate questionnaire.” On the surface, candidate questionnaires seem to fit in nicely with constructive public dialogue.

After all, what’s the harm in an organization asking a candidate to state his or her positions on the issues? But like a seemingly harmless virus, these questionnaires have infiltrated our political ecosystem and evolved into a sophisticated underground punishment-and-rewards system.

Here’s the way it works: From the day they announce their intentions for public office, candidates are besieged with dozens of these surveys. They are sent to prospective candidates months before filing opens, sometimes more than a year before the general election.

If the candidates don’t fill them out, they will not be granted an interview, or considered for an endorsement and the all-important campaign donation. If, however, the candidates answer the questions correctly, they are given money and powerful endorsements – all with strings attached.

Most of the questionnaires – like most of the money contributed to candidates – come from narrow interests. Union and business entities constitute the bulk of campaign giving. A viable grass-roots candidate, with individual donors providing the majority of funds, is a sighting as rare as a whale swimming up the American River.

As a candidate, I’m seeing these power politics up close. One survey sent to me had more than 80 questions. Many begin with phrases “do you support” or “will you actively oppose ... ” There is little doubt about how you are expected to answer.

A union survey asks if I will walk the picket line, speak at rallies, intercede with employers, and write letters on their behalf, even ask their permission before making endorsements.

Recall that during the BART strike, state politicians made lobbying calls to BART board members and even knocked on the doors of their homes late at night. Now you know why a dozen politicians crashed the negotiations and ended up “monitoring” the progress in a neighboring conference room.

That’s bad enough. But the worst part of this political gantlet is its secretive nature. Special interests and their hand-picked politicians don’t want the public to know the questions – and certainly not the answers.

So don’t be surprised if your legislator seems to sometimes vote without regard for debate or discussion. It may be because he or she has already made a private commitment. You’re just the last to know.

I believe one of the keys to a more effective Legislature is to break the walls of secrecy surrounding these private promises and to demand public disclosure and accountability. Backroom deals like these cannot survive the light of day.

To that end, I have challenged my opponents to post their answers to these questionnaires on their websites. I have a section on my own website with every questionnaire or written position I have given to an endorsing organization.

Importantly, community organizations and newspaper editorial boards should demand to see candidates’ private promises before they consider supporting their candidacies.

There is a reason why, at times, politicians don’t bother to read the bills. They have already made secret promises, so facts and particulars don’t really matter. These private questionnaires contribute to this insanity. So let us demand disclosure of these pledges before the election.

Or better yet, let’s stop pandering to these interest groups and refuse to fill out questionnaires in the first place.