Dan Morain

Dan Morain: Missteps on candidate questionnaires can cost elections

Dan Morain
Dan Morain

Grover Norquist, the conservative political operative, has made a name for himself by foisting The Pledge on Republican politicians: Oppose tax increases, or else.

Democrats attack him for it, and many pundits, including me, blame him and his ilk for much of what’s wrong with the body politic. But there is a flip side. Supporters of Democratic politicians offer their own tests and pledges, though they don’t use those terms.

Most moneyed interests give detailed questionnaires to candidates. Candidates must answer if they are to have any hope of getting the groups’ endorsements and money. But unlike Norquist, who publicly identifies politicians who sign the no-tax pledge, most questionnaires remain an insider’s game. That should change.

Questionnaires are hardly new. But they are proliferating in this term-limited era in which a third or more of the Legislature turns over in any given election cycle. Realtors, trial lawyers, unions and the other interest groups want to know who they’re dealing with, and so they give them ever-more-detailed questionnaires. And ’tis the season, six months before the primary, when candidates fill them out, with counsel from their consultants. Missteps can cost elections.

“The stakes are high in politics. These are an expression of that,” said Assemblyman Ken Cooley, D-Rancho Cordova, who filled out several questionnaires when he won his seat in 2012.

Interest groups use the questionnaires to inculcate new candidates to the special interest world they seek to enter. By slanting their questions, they make clear how they see Capitol politics.

Based on its questions, the California Teachers Association doesn’t like merit pay, or contracting out: “Will you oppose contracting out public education including online courses?”

Caltrans engineers similarly dislike outsourcing. “Will you support legislation to require that public inspectors are on the job to ensure that construction and earthquake standards are met?” the Professional Engineers in California Government questionnaire asks.

The Service Employees International Union, which represents employees in trial courts, asks whether candidates would “prioritize a reinvestment in the trial court where essential services to the public is provided,” rather than “massive spending on an IT project, gold-plated pensions for top executives … and lavish construction.”

The SEIU questionnaire is a 13-page tome. The union, which represents most state workers, asks candidates if they would walk picket lines if they were elected, support health care coverage for “all Californians regardless of immigration status” and “actively oppose the contracting out of services that can be performed by public employees.”

Then there are the pension questions, including one about a potential 2012 ballot initiative by San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed. Reed’s initiative could lead to reduced pensions by public employees and larger contributions to their retirement.

“Mayor Chuck Reed has embarked on a push for a statewide pension initiative that would for the first time go after benefits of current public employees, eliminating the ‘California Rule’ upheld by courts as well as reduce collective bargaining rights in major ways. Will you actively oppose the pending measure?”

There is one right answer, as public-employee unions see it.

You can see the questionnaires playing out during legislative sessions.

During the 2012 United Food and Commercial Workers strike against Raley’s in 2012, Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg walked the picket line, as did Assemblymen Roger Dickinson and Richard Pan, Sacramento Democrats who are running against each other for Steinberg’s Senate seat and answering various groups’ questionnaires.

Pan carried a bill last year backed by the SEIU and other public-employee unions restricting the state’s authority to contract out state work. Last week, Senate Democrats held a news conference to announce support for expanded kindergarten, at a cost of $198 million a year. It might be a fine idea. But the California Teachers Association’s questionnaire places the proposal in context: “Will you support a publicly funded universal access kindergarten readiness program?”

The questionnaires come down to money.

The California Teachers Association spent more than $40 million on California campaigns in 2012. The Service Employees state council spent more than $20 million, plus millions more by SEIU locals. Professional Engineers in California Government spent $2.5 million on campaigns in 2012.

The SEIU questionnaire ends with a final question underscoring that money is at the root of the process. Referring to the California Chamber of Commerce’s political action committee, the union asks: “Will you accept and/or do you intend to seek an endorsement and/or funding from JOBSPAC or other business-funded PACs for your current campaign?”

The question is an effort to gauge the candidates’ loyalty. Candidates who take money solely from unions presumably would support union issues once they’re in office, although it doesn’t turn out that way. Politicians can, after all, be promiscuous.

This year, at least one Democratic candidate is questioning the questionnaires.

Steve Glazer, a former aide to Gov. Jerry Brown, is running for a Contra Costa County Assembly seat against a California Teachers Association executive and isn’t filling out the questionnaires. He’s not likely to get many labor endorsements anyway, having run afoul of labor in the 2012 election by supporting Democratic candidates opposed by the Democratic establishment.

“Questionnaires can force future policymakers into a position before they know all the facts and options. That is a recipe for gridlock, not problem solving,” Glazer told me. “They are used by powerful narrow interests to browbeat and capture the souls of politically ambitious people. Worse yet, many of these blood promises are kept secret from voters.”

Representatives of interest groups have a fundamental right to ask any question they want. Candidates have an obligation to make clear where they stand. But organizations with millions to spend have special access long before candidates win office. Mere mortals must depend on mailers and television commercials, press coverage and perhaps an occasional candidate forum.

So here is a modest proposal. Questions posed by the interest groups and the answers given should be public. Voters should make that a litmus test in 2014. I certainly will.

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