Opinion Columns & Blogs

The price of democracy in California...

While giving a presentation to the West Sacramento Friends of the Library annual meeting, someone asked me a very interesting question.

Usually, someone will ask me what I think the difference between Oregon and California is. My response is that California seems to think of Oregon as California’s northernmost county, and that the scale of difference is so enormous that there is no real political comparison. This time, someone asked what I thought the political difference between Sacramento and Washington, DC was.

Given that California is exactly the same size as Canada in terms of population, and could qualify for a seat at the G-10 nations summit, I found it a fascinating question. Having only been in California since January, I’m hardly an expert, but here goes, with an addenda to my answer of last night.

Both Sacramento and Washington, DC are wading in unfathomable amounts of special interest money to the point where it’s very difficult to see how anyone isn’t influenced. When an oil company can pick out a state senator and just pay him so much money to be a lobbyist that he gives up his political career, that’s the influence of money. When an assembly or state senate race costs a couple of million dollars, that’s the influence of money. When the need for that money is so great that members of the legislature are holding fundraising events during the session, that’s the influence of money.

I noted, not originally, that there is a small group of people in the political process making astronomical sums of money off of democracy: political consultants who get a percentage of ad buys from tv stations, the tv stations themselves, and a small coterie of professional political consultants and lobbyists who make a very lucrative living servicing those elected officials.

Are you making money on the deal?

Well, maybe you are if you have a lovely office on K Street (DC or Sacramento), and maybe you’re not.

Probably not, though.

We’re in a phase of governance in this country where there are four tiers of statewide and federal candidates:

1. The enormously wealthy.

2. The fairly wealthy.

3. People who are very, very good at manipulating other wealthy people.

4. Celebrities.

Now, I am not suggesting that it was better in 1880, or 1960, because it wasn’t. There were no campaign finance limits, otherwise respectable elected officials took sacks of cash for their campaigns, and sometimes for themselves, and the system still managed to function, more or less. After Watergate in the 1970s, a new system of campaign finance laws were put in place, and the political class has dutifully worked to unravel the whole thing ever since.

A California case in point: the Fair Political Practices Commission just fined two shadowy political action committees from Arizona $1 million, and demanded they both pay back the state $15 million.

A spokesman for the groups with a typical ephemerally-deceptive name basically told the FPPC: too bad, we don’t have the money, we spent it opposing Proposotions 30 and 32.

Shrug. Smile.

As we become a less-informed electorate, and a smaller percentage of us are persuadable, the more money is spent manipulating fewer and fewer voters.

Sacramento, meet Washington, DC. No difference.

A candidate for the state Senate was at the event. I truly have no doubt he is sincerely motivated. He is a long-time elected official who has done many good things for his community. I’ll bet if you locked him in a room and said, hey, we’re throwing out this stupid charade of a system that forces you to dial for dollars every day, he’d be all in. I can guarantee it. And I can guarantee you he also knows what needs to be done. Vote for strict limits and stop the insanity.

He won’t, though, because he’s a hostage to the system he serves in.

After I spoke, a very nice lady came up to me and said, nice talk. What can we, as voters, do about campaign finance?

I do have one idea. The next time you meet a candidate, ask him or her what they’re doing to reform this putrid sewer of a campaign finance system. Because if you don’t, the Koch Brothers or some other similarly-altruistic group is going to make sure you can’t even ask, because they won’t even tell you their name.

For now, candidates still have to tell you theirs.

But we are damned close to it not mattering anymore.