Jack Ohman

Sacramento political reform: close, but no cigar...

The news that lobbyist Kevin Sloat is being fined $133,500 by the Fair Political Practices Commission is not surprising. What is surprising is that probably no one will really care.


Oh, maybe a little. And maybe someone will do something, somehow. But it won’t be much, and it won’t be enough.

Sloat will, I am quite certain, keep his clients, and operate more or less as he and his K Street denizens do. Except Sloat got some unwanted publicity and established a record.

The kind of freebies that Sloat apparently handed to everyone in state government from Gov. Jerry Brown on down is trifling in comparison to the massive giveaways that go down in Sacramento on a regular basis.

The theoretical limit of $10 gifts to elected officials is chump change. All Sloat did was figure out that he could hand out really good booze and cigars in the privacy of his own home, where the limit magically rises to $500 dollars in spending for a house party, which is chump change, too.

No one can be had for a cigar and a scotch, even in Sacramento. I don’t think so, anyway. But the bangles and baubles of an itsy bitsy cocktail soiree are indicative of the nature of the larger culture here: everyone has a price.

We have boiled the political process here down to three types of candidates:

1. Truly ethical people sincerely committed to public service who are subtly persuadeable on some level.

2. Flexibly ethical people who are good at politics and want to stay in the game as long as they can.

3. Sleazebags.

The only thing we can do about the sleazebags is hope not too many of them get elected. Unfortunately, a few slither through the cracks. You could get their votes for a Vegas show, or maybe even medium Slurpee and half a bag of Cool Ranch Doritos.

The Flexicals are a different story. I think most electeds fall in this category, and they control the narrative. They keep the system just loose enough so they can stay in office. They manage to circumvent most major reforms, but tiptoe just inside the letter of the law. Most of the Flexicals are not millionaires, now known as self-funders. The Flexicals have scrapped their way to the top, and like living large.

How do they stay there? They play ball, baby. Every day. And when you play ball, you sometimes have to slide in the dirt. Fortunately, they’ve constructed a ballpark where they can shake off the dirt without much laundering. They have established rather substantial campaign contribution limits, and they establish charitable foundations where any generous, public-spirited power patron (Walmart, Chevron, Your Special Interest Here) can kick in a lot of money to keep someone’s brother or some guy who knows some guy’s buddy gainfully employed. Sweet.

Flexicals like a good scotch and a Cuban as much as the next person, but it’s not something they’re going to fall on a grenade for.

Which brings us to The Truly Ethical.

I worry about them the most, because they vote for the right things and say the right things and generally do the right things within the context of their conscience and their political philosophy. They’re the student body presidents, the editors of their law reviews, the small businesses owners, the executives, the specialists who do meaningful work in socially useful areas, and generally comport themselves as Not Crooked.

And they are prisoners of the cocktail party lobby culture and don’t break. They don’t try, generally, because that means they cannot do the very important things they have set out to accomplish in politics. Why blow up a big school funding bill or not get a rec center built if you can just just hang on a little longer, navigating your way around the Glenfiddich and the Cohibas and hoping you don’t spill on yourself or get burned?

It’s sad, because everytime the Truly Ethical come up with a reform, the really sharp Flexicals and Sleazebags figure out a way around it. It happened after Watergate. It happened after McCain-Feingold. It happened after the California Political Reform Act. It keeps happening.

So have another round of reform, and chase it a shot of scotch and a fat Havana cigar.