Politics is Up for Sale in California

The flow of money to candidates and causes calls the idea of the people's best interests into question.

There are many areas of the world where ordinary citizens suspect that their elections are for sale. But California is one of the few places where these purchases are publicly disclosed.

Consider last November’s Proposition 9, an initiative sponsored by consumer activists that would have slashed utility rates in the state. The utility companies spent about $ 40 million to crush the measure, and some of their most effective television ads featured crusading consumer affairs reporter David Horowitz, star of the “Fight Back” TV series. Horowitz’s impassioned claims that Proposition 9 would be a disaster for consumers swayed many voters. Most never realized that he had been paid more than $ 100,000 by the utility companies to make those claims.

During that same election, Proposition 10, the tobacco tax initiative, was denounced as “doing nothing for schools” in a series of TV ads by former state Supt. of Public Instruction Wilson Riles Jr., leading his past political allies to wonder why. Post-election filings answered that question: He’d been paid $ 90,000 by the tobacco industry.

Despite strongly opposing both Proposition 9 and Proposition 10 on policy grounds, I was outraged by this growing role of purchased endorsements in elections and consequently drafted the California Voters Bill of Rights initiative aimed at the March 2000 ballot. Among other things, it would force endorsers to disclose in ads if they were being paid by the campaign or its major donors.

Such a requirement would have proved very helpful in our Proposition 227 initiative to dismantle California’s system of “bilingual education.” During that campaign, we had been surprised that a measure so obviously necessary and so overwhelmingly popular among the voters was nonetheless so strongly opposed by the leading candidates for governor, Democrat and Republican alike. Days before the election, they jointly starred in a multimillion-dollar series of television ads urging “No on 227.”

Campaign reports later revealed that a huge portion of the opposition advertising campaign was funded by one individual, Republican billionaire A. Jerrold Perenchio, owner of the Univision Spanish-language television network, perhaps with an interest in preventing Latino children from learning English. Contribution reports also revealed that Perenchio, in last year’s gubernatorial race, was the single largest individual contributor, writing checks that totaled nearly $ 500,000 to the leading candidates, including Republican Dan Lungren, Democrat Gray Davis and Jane Harman, a Davis opponent in the primary.

But for all these questionable campaign practices, the most obvious problem with our current election system is the unlimited and gigantic flow of money from special interests, corporations and unions into the campaign accounts of our political leaders. California is one of the few states that places no restrictions on the size or source of contributions, and huge cash payments from doubtful interests have become the norm. During last November’s election, Bill Lockyer, the winning candidate for state attorney general, and his chief rival, Dave Stirling, each received hundreds of thousands of dollars from the very gambling casino interests that, as California’s chief law enforcement officer, he would be required to regulate or perhaps close down. In fact, gambling casinos have become the largest political donors in California, last year pouring about $ 100 million into our elections, including millions to Democratic and Republican candidates alike.

While most politicians probably can’t be bought for $ 1,000 or $ 5,000 contributions, allowing donors to write checks for $ 500,000 creates a dangerous temptation for money-hungry political hopefuls. The reform initiative addresses this problem by imposing contribution limits–$ 5,000 for statewide candidates and $ 3,000 for others–that are low enough to reduce corruption but high enough to avoid being struck down by the courts, the fate of California’s previous contribution limit laws. Also, all contributions of $ 1,000 or more would have to be disclosed within 24 hours over the Internet, with the largest donors to campaigns listed in the sample ballot and in media ads.

Finally, candidates would be prohibited from soliciting political contributions more than 12 months before an election. Without this, we see the current sordid spectacle of Gov. Davis, who had no sooner entered office than he began a massive new fund-raising drive for his race in 2002, raising more than $ 6 million in just six months from the very special interests whose legislative fate he now all but controls.

The problem with California elections today is not that political campaigns regularly violate or even skirt the law but that the laws themselves have become so weak and ineffective that obviously corrupt practices are absolutely lawful. Elected offices–from national to local ones–are regularly bought and sold for cash payments, but with all those payments duly reported and the contracts underlying them drafted by respectable attorneys.

The harm to public confidence and democracy from such legalized corruption is enormous. In March 2000, a ballot measure will allow California voters to end the abuses and restore our democratic institutions.

Software entrepreneur Ron K. Unz led the successful campaign to, dismantle bilingual education in California’s public schools last year

Comments are closed.