Big Money from Special Interests Attempts to Sway Three Local Elections

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Without directly revealing their involvement, major industries
and organizations play key roles in legislative contests.

Reporting from Sacramento — The issues and the special interests that pursued them in last month’s primary election are familiar: Big oil, tobacco and
insurance companies seeking armor against litigation and taxes; trial
lawyers looking for more opportunities to sue; the state Chamber of
Commerce working against proposals its members deem costly.

But even battle-hardened veterans of special-interest wars were alarmed
by how some of California’s most influential groups flooded a few small
campaigns with money in an effort to achieve their goals.

Under innocuous umbrella names such as the California Alliance and Put
California Back to Work, they poured more than $1 million into each of
three contests for rank-and-file legislative seats — races that merely
determined who would advance to the general election.

That’s far more than legislative candidates normally spend on their own
campaigns; in 2008, aspiring state lawmakers’ campaign outlays averaged
$405,000, according to the nonpartisan National Institute on Money and
State Politics.

In one of the three, a state Senate district stretching through
Riverside and San Diego counties, the interest groups set a record for a
legislative primary by spending $2.9 million on a race between two
Democrats. That sum was more than double what the two candidates shelled

The groups’ spending "makes a mockery of the rules designed to create a
level playing field," said Dan Schnur, chairman of the state Fair
Political Practices Commission.

That’s because their money didn’t go directly to the candidates they
favored, because such contributions are subject to strict limits.
Instead, the cash went to outside political committees that are free to
raise limitless sums as long as the candidates they support are not
involved in the groups’ efforts.

In districts where elections are close enough that an infusion of cash
can sway the outcome, and where there are candidates aligned with the
special interests’ legislative agenda, the groups "feel it’s worth
pushing them over the top," said Tracy Westen, chief executive of the
Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles. "It’s an investment."

Voters may not have been aware that insurance companies, lawyers and
other interests were calling most of the shots in the three campaigns.

The California Senior Advocates League, which paid for attack ads in two
of the three contests, received money from JobsPAC, which is affiliated
with the Chamber of Commerce, and Put California Back to Work, a
committee sponsored by the Civil Justice Assn. of California. Both
groups’ members and contributors are mostly big corporations.

Doug Heller, executive director of the Santa Monica nonprofit Consumer
Watchdog, said the league’s name gives the impression that the
candidates’ support is coming from "an authentic campaign by seniors."

The league’s money went to help candidates who included Juan Vargas,
who battled Assemblywoman Mary Salas in the Democratic primary for the
Senate seat in Riverside and San Diego counties.

Business executives might not normally back Democrats because of the
perception that they cannot be counted on to hold the line against more
taxes — and Vargas may not. But the demographics of the district suggest
that a Democrat will win in November, and Vargas is an insurance
company executive and former assemblyman who worked with the industry
during his last stint at the Capitol to thwart what they considered
excessive regulation.

Moreover, the business groups were determined to drive Salas, a liberal,
out of the Legislature. She voted for two bills dubbed "climate change
taxes" by the Chamber of Commerce. She also voted in favor of a measure
allowing patients to sue health insurance firms that rescind coverage in
certain ways.

Interest groups "track your votes, and if they don’t like your voting
record there is this threat that they are going to run this campaign
against you," Salas said.

Vargas is leading the race; certification of the vote count is expected
by Thursday.

Most of the $2.9 million that the interest groups spent on the contest
went to oppose Salas and support Vargas. The contributing committees
included Californians for Balance & Fairness in the Civil Justice
System, another group created and controlled by the Civil Justice Assn.
of California.

The association lobbies the Legislature against bills they believe would
allow unreasonable lawsuits against its members, which include oil
companies BP, ExxonMobil and Chevron; insurance firms AIG, Allstate,
Farmers and State Farm; pharmaceutical giants Bristol-Myers Squibb and
Bayer; and the tobacco firm Altria, which owns Philip Morris USA.

"Our political activity is aimed, as it has always been, at helping
elect legislators who will bring more balance and fairness to the civil
justice system," said John H. Sullivan, president of the Civil Justice
Assn. of California.

Salas was bolstered by the arch-nemesis of Sullivan’s group, the
Consumer Attorneys of California, which represents trial lawyers who
often sue big corporations. The organization contributed heavily to the
California Alliance, which campaigned in support of the assemblywoman.
The California Nurses Assn. was another big contributor to the alliance.

"Mary has a history of standing up to the insurance industry," said Lea
Ann Tratten, political director for the consumer attorney’s group.

In addition to the Salas-Vargas contest, special interests swamped a
Senate race on the Central Coast and an Assembly contest in Los Angeles
County, bankrolling a barrage of attack mail and broadcast ads that the
candidates could not afford financially or politically.

"If the voters understood clearly that it was tobacco, insurance and oil
companies that were trying to influence their vote, it would have a
completely different impact," said John Laird, a former Democratic
assemblyman who placed a distant second in the Central Coast race.

Laird was competing in a special election to fill the Senate seat
vacated by Abel Maldonado, whom the governor appointed as lieutenant
governor. Business groups spent $1.3 million in the contest to benefit
Republican Assemblyman Sam Blakeslee of San Luis Obispo, who placed
first. Blakeslee and Laird will compete again in a runoff in the fall.

Complaints against the association have been voiced by the campaign of
Betsy Butler, a former fundraiser for the Consumer Attorneys of
California who won an Assembly primary in a district that includes Los
Angeles, Redondo Beach and Torrance. Her affiliation with the trial
lawyers made her a target for big business.

About $666,000 was spent independently to oppose her by five groups
funded by business interests, including committees sponsored by the
Civil Justice Assn.

[email protected]

Consumer Watchdog
Consumer Watchdog
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