California Focus: Raise money early to win California |

California Focus: Raise money early to win California

Thomas D. Elias

Its a non-election year in California, at least for statewide voting, and the first year off this states voters have enjoyed since 2001. So its a rare year when politicians and voters can both think without pressure about whats gone wrong in Californias public affairs.There is one obvious item: money, which has become the singlemost dominant factor in deciding elections. Fundraising, of course, is not new. Back in the 1960s, the late, always pithy Assembly Speaker Jesse Unruh famously observed that Money is the mothers milk of politics.But not even Unruh could imagine the vast sums spent in this state during the past three years. If you add the money burned last year, then put in what was spent on the ballot propositions decided in the 2005 special election, you get a figure that comes close to $1 billion. Last year alone, campaigns within California spent more than $550 billion, well over one-fourth of the national total of about $2 billion. Include the 2004 election and youre topping a billion and a half. As the late Republican Sen. Everett Dirksen of Illinois noted, A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon youre talking serious money.During this new free-spending era, one thing proved true almost across the board, from legislative and congressional races to statewide offices and initiatives: Whoever spent the most money won.In fact, the results tended to bear out the very name of the leading liberal womens fundraising outfit, Emilys List, an appellation that stands for the phrase Early money is like yeast. For sure, early money made candidates and ideas rise to the top at the polls.If anything could ever give California voters sufficient motivation to do something maybe even something drastic to take big money out of politics, it should be last falls election results. Wherever there was a significant difference in fundraising, the wealthier side won.Energy companies, primarily ExxonMobil, Shell Oil and Chevron, pumped more than $70 million into the campaign to defeat Proposition 87, which would have imposed a small royalty on oil pumped in California and used the money for research on alternative energy. The measures supporters raised about $48 million, including $40 million from a single movie producer, and it lost by a 55-45 percent margin, fairly close to the percentage difference in money raised.The No side on Proposition 90, a measure to limit government power to buy up private property cheaply, raised almost three times more than its proponents, so an initiative that enjoyed wide early leads in the polls was beaten back by a fairly narrow 52-48 percent.It was much the same in contests involving real people. The wider the fundraising edge, the larger the gains from early surveys to actual vote totals. Even the race for lieutenant governor, where every survey showed virtually no gap between eventual winner John Garamendi and his Republican opponent Tom McClintock, ended up with a fairly wide margin, Garamendi getting 50 percent to McClintocks 45 percent. Garamendi raised almost twice as much as McClintock.But its not merely the sheer amounts of money and their direct linkage to the results that should alarm voters. In some cases, its also how the money was spent.For instance, Alice Huffman, head of the states wing of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, collected a reported $160,000 from the tobacco company-funded campaign against Proposition 86, which would have imposed a large new tax on cigarettes. Not surprisingly, she actively opposed it.Similarly, the Rev. Amos Brown, a prominent African American minister in San Francisco who earlier was critical of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, received $16,000 from the Schwarzenegger campaign and became his most vocal black endorser.Then there was the states former legislative analyst, William Hamm, who used that credential in materials opposing the Proposition 87 oil royalty. His firm received a reported $94,000 from the oil company-funded campaign against the measure and the No side used his statements and a study he did as part of their TV commercials against the proposition.Theres no law against endorsers being paid for espousing their views, or even changing their views when someone pays them. But there should be. Or at least such payments should be noted in the ads .The use of paid endorsers in campaign commercials and literature is far more visible and makes a much greater impact than any Internet listing of money received by those endorsers.If Californians hadnt realized before the election that this states politics are a cesspool, the sorry record of last fall should at least provide a strong stench to help them figure it out.But state lawmakers almost certainly will do nothing about all this, for they are among the chief beneficiaries. That means it will be up to outsiders to run an initiative campaign designed both to limit how much corporations, labor unions and other interests can donate to politicians and campaigns, but also to set some firm rules on how campaigns can spend the money they raise.Failure to do this will ensure a continuation of a sick status quo.Thomas D. Elias is a syndicated columnist who writes about California issues. Contact him via e-mail at

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