Grubbing for Booty

Craven California Democrats are demanding unprecedented campaign contributions to ensure single-party dominance of state politics

Single-party political systems have been disastrous throughout history because they are a formula for corruption, repression, and the cult of personality. Disregarding this maxim, California voters essentially created a one-party system in Sacramento last November when Democratic Governor Gray Davis won office and Democratic majorities were elected to both the state Assembly and Senate. As a lifelong Democrat who hates the Democratic Party because it is generally led by a mentally challenged bunch of smugly inept social engineers, I shuddered to consider the possibilities as I watched Davis last January during the most lavish and overdone swearing-in ceremony (meticulously planned by the megalomanical Davis himself) ever witnessed in Sacramento.

What will happen, I wondered then, now that California voters have swept away the checks and balances that are in place when two opposing political parties share power in the statehouse?

Now I know the answer. This week, with the state capitol mired in the traditionally frantic final days of the legislative season (a staggering pile of 2,000 laws and bills have been proposed, and those that are not approved by September 9 will die or have to wait until next year), California’s one-party disaster is beginning to unfold like a summer epidemic of killer flu.

To the shock of political observers, it has been reported that Gray Davis spent much of his seven months as governor raising an unbelievable $6.1 million for his reelection four long years from now. The money is gushing in almost exclusively to the Democrats from every imaginable special interest group and from California’s richest citizens, creating an early treasure chest unprecedented for a governor in the United States. By comparison, prodigious fund-raiser Pete Wilson had raised $1.2 million by this time in his governorship, and laid-back George Deukmejian had raised just $32,000.

The frenzy of donations is pouring in from business and corporate lobbies and from the huge medical, legal, and financial special interests that see wonderful new opportunities in a single-party political system. In the past six months, Democratic leader Antonio Villaraigosa of Los Angeles, the lame duck Speaker of the Assembly who must leave office next year because of term limits, has amassed a stunning $1.8 million. Senate President Pro Tem John Burton, the longtime San Francisco Democrat, has pulled in more than $2 million.

The normally disengaged Los Angeles Times was moved to call this “an orgy of uninhibited fund-raising” — in its news pages. Indeed, by contrast, the Assembly’s Republican leader, Scott Baugh of Huntington Beach, has raised just $231,000.

And now, with the legislative session about to end for 1999, the Democrats are reaching new heights as they make slimy paybacks to their special interest supporters.

For example, one bill currently sailing through the process, pushed by 3-M Co. and state Senator Steve Peace (D-El Cajon), would force all Californians to turn in their car license plates for newly “reflectorized” ones (3-M manufactures the reflective goop — which is useless, does not in fact make license plate numbers more visible, and will cost $98 million). Another bill would give the big car-rental chains at San Jose International Airport permission to sneak hidden charges into bills that the car-renting consumer could not detect. Another bill, pushed by San Fernando Valley Assemblyman Tony Cardenas, would let huge banks and other financial institutions that have illegally held onto a veritable fortune in unclaimed bank accounts get off the hook without normal punishment.

Sacramento Bee political columnist Dan Walters, the dean of the state press corps, tells me: “I thought I had seen everything, but the Democrats have managed to come up with new wrinkles. It’s a closed one-party game that doesn’t have your average Californian in mind.”

Davis himself has spent so much time passing his hat in California’s hubs of wealth that he has neglected many duties, such as filling top administrative jobs (including a badly needed boss for the Department of Motor Vehicles). He is so consumed with dialing for dollars that until August he hadn’t really paid much attention to the mounds of legislation heading for his desk.

Apparently convinced by his war chest that he is invincible, Davis recently told a stunned group of editors at the San Francisco Chronicle that the 120-member legislature’s sole role in the political hierarchy “is to implement my vision.” This bizarre belief, in a country where eighth graders first learn that the three branches of government have separate powers, earned Davis a flurry of bad press.

Davis thinks the media response is a big joke. He has actually been autographing a Bee political cartoon depicting him as Napoleon and handing it out to legislators and lobbyists.

But outside of Sacramento, a town that operates on forced laughter and ingratiating back-patting, Davis’ antics don’t seem so funny. In just a few months, Davis has managed to create the first cult of personality in the governor’s office since Democrat Jerry Brown — the last governor to enjoy single-party control — was its occupant 20 years ago. But while Jerry’s cult of personality was, in essence, an embracing of unusual ideas, Davis’ cult of personality is an embracing of pure greed.

Says Jim Clark, a former honcho in the California Democratic Party who is now with the left-oriented Americans for Democratic Action: “Davis has set a new standard, clearly a new low. His quest for cash is so openly pursued that everyone below him is now saying we ought to do that, too. If this continues, we will be back to a part-time legislature that spends its other months gathering cash.”

Clark points to a recent fund-raiser thrown by Assemblyman Cardenas in which the lead sponsors were asked to cough up a stratospheric $50,000 apiece.”

Asked what is driving them to beg for handouts everywhere they go, these leaders respond with nonsense. For example, Assembly Speaker Villaraigosa, who has raised $1.8 million, says he is forced to keep raising huge sums because of the ever-rising “cost” of Assembly races.

Does Villaraigosa think we are all daft? The cost of Assembly races is not higher. TV ads cost virtually no more than they did five years ago, glossy mailers cost no more to print, and staffers and consultants cost no more to hire. Inflation, in fact, has been virtually nonexistent in California for years. Truth is, Villaraigosa, Davis, Hertzberg, Cardenas and their ilk lack the cajones to say ENOUGH!

Ron Unz, the moderate Republican who ushered in Proposition 227 to end California’s disastrous Spanish-only “bilingual” education experiment, must have experienced some sort of ESP about the current debacle unfolding in Sacramento; for months he has been working on a campaign reform initiative that would end at least some of the nonsense.

Although Proposition 227 was successful, the campaign was outspent $300,000 to $6 million. Anti-227 contributions came from the Univision Spanish-language network and other profit-driven contributors that opposed 227 because they did not want immigrant children learning English. After witnessing the millions spent against 227 for basically craven reasons, Unz decided to pursue campaign reform.

Unz’s initiative would bar politicians from raising any dough until one year before election day, and it would severely restrict the unlimited giving by corporations.

Unz predicts that Gray Davis, if left unchecked, could amass a fortune in the $75- to $100-million range by the time he runs for governor four years from now.

“Really, Gray Davis is a poster child for the need for this campaign reform initiative,” says Unz. “It is amazing to consider that Democratic office holders in California now control 50 times more money in their campaign chests than Republicans. But even more amazing is that the fund-raising frenzy is building rather than subsiding. This week alone, Democrats are holding 75 fund-raisers to take money from the very companies and lobbyists whose bills will either be approved or die this week.”

This moneygrubbing during the final week of the legislative season each summer is not, of course, new. What is new is the sheer size of it, the one-sided nature of it, and the glowing backing of it by our new governor.

Davis, meanwhile, has lost all sense of keeping up appearances. Recently, he schmoozed at a fund-raiser thrown for him by powerful HMOs, which showered him that night with $200,000. The governor then met just two days later with those very same HMOs to discuss HMO reforms behind closed doors. When Davis emerged from his meeting with the HMOs, he let it be known that California residents, in his opinion, were not hankering for major HMO reforms.

Even seemingly clean Demos have jumped into the Davis-led frenzy. Assemblyman Bob Hertzberg of the San Fernando Valley allowed Phillip Pace, powerful chairman of the monopolistic Metropolitan Water District, to mail out letters (which, it was later learned, appeared on MWD-like stationery) to contractors and consultants who rely on the MWD for a living. The letters “invited” them to pay $500 to attend a Hertzberg fund-raiser last month. The Fair Political Practices Commission is investigating complaints that the contractors felt pressured to hand over the money.

Hertzberg was not involved in creating the letter or in pressuring contractors, but his “so what?” attitude is troubling. “We’ve sent out letters saying we will return the $500 to anyone who felt uncomfortable,” says Paul Hefren, Hertzberg’s spokesman. “But [Hertzberg] has raised $850,000 in the last six months, so in the scheme of things, this is not significant.”

Well, it certainly is reassuring to know that Hertzberg, one of the contenders for Assembly speaker, is so mired in special-interest bucks that it’s all just one big satisfying blur.

If the governor is to discourage the poor judgment that reigns among Democrats in Sacramento these days, and thus avert brewing financial scandals within his own party, he has to send out a dramatic new message. But that will not happen. Davis’ hero, you see, is former U.S. Senator Alan Cranston.

Asked once by Dan Walters why he admired Cranston so much, Davis replied: “Because Alan Cranston made 100 phone calls for money every single day of his political career.”

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