Leg­isla­tive lead­ers seek con­trol of cam­paign money, like they once had

The Fresno Bee (Sunday) - - Opinion - BY DAN WAL­TERS CALmat­ters Colum­nist CALmat­ters is a public in­ter­est jour­nal­ism ven­ture com­mit­ted to ex­plain­ing how Cal­i­for­nia’s state Capi­tol works and why it mat­ters. For more sto­ries by Dan Wal­ters, go to calmat­ters.org/com­men­tary.

Jesse Un­ruh, the leg­endary speaker of the state Assem­bly dur­ing the 1960s, was fond of pithy quips, and one of his more en­dur­ing is that “money is the mother’s milk of pol­i­tics.”

Be­fore Un­ruh be­came the Assem­bly’s leader in 1961, the fi­nanc­ing of leg­isla­tive cam­paigns was largely con­trolled by Capi­tol lob­by­ists, who ad­hered to the “se­lect and elect” phi­los­o­phy of the lob­by­ing trade’s most fa­mous – or in­fa­mous – prac­ti­tioner, Ar­tie Samish.

Un­ruh main­tained Samish’s process of se­lect­ing can­di­dates for the Assem­bly, but sought, suc­cess­fully, to trans­fer it into his hands. For the next three­plus decades, leg­isla­tive lead­ers – par­tic­u­larly long­time Assem­bly Speaker Wil­lie Brown – lever­aged their power over leg­is­la­tion to com­pel spe­cial in­ter­est groups to fun­nel money through their hands. Thus, they wielded al­most hege­monic con­trol over which Democrats could as­pire to leg­isla­tive ca­reers. Brown could boast, ac­cu­rately, of be­ing the “Ay­a­tol­lah of the Leg­is­la­ture.”

The sys­tem broke down in the 1990s af­ter vot­ers passed leg­isla­tive term lim­its. Long-term leg­isla­tive and lead­er­ship ca­reers be­came ob­so­lete and even­tu­ally, in­ter­est groups and their lob­by­ists filled the power vac­uum, re­sum­ing a Samish-like role of groom­ing and fi­nanc­ing can­di­dates.

Po­lit­i­cal re­form groups such as Com­mon Cause re­acted by spon­sor­ing a 1996 bal­lot mea­sure, Propo­si­tion 208, that im­posed tight lim­its on cam­paign con­tri­bu­tions.

The po­lit­i­cal pro­fes­sion­als didn’t like it for ob­vi­ous rea­sons and chal­lenged it in court. And as the le­gal bat­tle was be­ing waged, the Leg­is­la­ture, with lit­tle warn­ing, placed an­other mea­sure, Propo­si­tion 34, on the 2000 bal­lot to suc­ceed it.

It pur­ported to be a re­form, but ac­tu­ally made it eas­ier for big money to flow in­di­rectly into cam­paigns via “in­de­pen­dent ex­pen­di­tures” and through po­lit­i­cal par­ties, thus pro­tect­ing can­di­dates from ac­count­abil­ity for its source.

As I ob­served in a 2010 Sacra­mento Bee col­umn, “... laun­der­ing cam­paign money to dis­guise its source is ex­actly what state leg­is­la­tors in­tended when they wrote Propo­si­tion 34 a decade ago.” Term lim­its were mod­i­fied a few years ago, and one effect is that leg­isla­tive lead­ers, such as cur­rent Assem­bly Speaker An­thony Ren­don and Se­nate Pres­i­dent Pro Tem Toni Atkins, can hold their of­fices longer.

They clearly as­pire to reestab­lish the cen­tral­ized leg­isla­tive lead­er­ship that had been eroded by term lim­its, and to do so, they want big­ger roles in amass­ing and dis­pens­ing cam­paign funds to their fa­vored leg­is­la­tors and can­di­dates, a la Un­ruh and Brown.

A late-bloom­ing bill, Assem­bly Bill 84, would do ex­actly that, giv­ing lead­er­ship cam­paign or­ga­ni­za­tions the same sta­tus as po­lit­i­cal par­ties, and thus al­low­ing them to raise and spend much more money.

Po­lit­i­cal re­form groups op­pose it, of course. “AB 84 would be the big­gest roll­back of Cal­i­for­nia’s cam­paign fi­nance law in at least a decade,” Ni­co­las Hei­dorn of Cal­i­for­nia Com­mon Cause told the Se­nate Elec­tions and Con­sti­tu­tional Amend­ments Com­mit­tee be­fore it voted to ap­prove the mea­sure last week.

In­ter­est­ingly, how­ever, AB 84 also draws op­po­si­tion from the Cal­i­for­nia Demo­cratic Party even though Ren­don and Atkins are high-rank­ing lead­ers of the party, ap­par­ently be­cause it would erode the party’s pow­er­ful role in fi­nanc­ing cam­paigns provided by Propo­si­tion 34.“There’s too much money in pol­i­tics. This bill is a step back­ward. Cal­i­for­nia pol­i­tics sim­ply does not need more op­por­tu­ni­ties for big checks to go to cam­paigns,” Daraka La­ri­more-Hall, Demo­cratic Party vice chair­man, told the com­mit­tee.

If noth­ing else, the split is an­other in­di­ca­tion that de­spite its po­lit­i­cal dom­i­nance of Cal­i­for­nia – or per­haps be­cause of it – the party is frag­ment­ing into sub­fac­tions and ad­di­tional ev­i­dence that money is, in­deed, the mother’s milk of po­lit­i­cal power.

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