‘Capitol tradition’ is at the climax of the session’s legislation.
They’re the most expensive meals in town.
A $1,000 smoothie, a $2,000 plate of Mexican food, some $750 calamari – all served with the smiling face of your favorite politician.
In these final weeks of the state legislative session, political fund-raisers dominate the mealtime schedule, often with ticket prices in the thousands of dollars. Stacks of invitations flood mailboxes and fax machines at lobbying firms around town.
At least 91 such events were scheduled for the final month of this year’s session, which ends Sept. 14, the most in any one-month period in 2001. Attending all the events would cost more than $92,000.
Watchdog groups criticize the timing. They say lawmakers schedule more events in the final weeks because hundreds of bills are at stake and companies want to gain as much influence as possible.
“It’s a Capitol tradition,” said Jim Knox, director of California Common Cause. “It’s no coincidence that fund raising peaks at the climax of legislation. This is the time when legislators have the most leverage over the special interests whose legislation will live or die in the next couple of weeks.”
But lawmakers insist that the timing is nothing more than a function of the year’s schedule. They say that because the Capitol shuts down in mid-September and legislators return to their districts, the last few weeks represent one final chance to raise money in Sacramento.
A bash, a festival, call it what you will – the late-session events are major money-makers for the Legislature.
Check-writing was particularly active on Aug. 29, when 18 events were held for lawmakers and others running for Capitol offices.
There was the 7:30 a.m. Jamba Juice breakfast reception at a downtown restaurant hosted by Assemblyman Richard Dickerson, R-Redding. Cost: $1,000.
There was the dinnertime Garlic Gala 2001 at Sutter’s Fort in honor of Assemblyman Simon Salinas, a Democrat from Salinas. Cost: $750.
And there was even a midday luncheon at a popular Capitol eatery hosted by Assemblywoman Carole Migden, D-San Francisco, at a cost of $1,000.
That one, in particular, raised eyebrows around the Capitol.
Migden, as chairwoman of the Assembly Appropriations Committee, is a powerful legislator in Sacramento. Most legislation must pass through her panel before reaching the Assembly floor.
While most events occur in the morning or at night, Migden’s fund-raiser came at noon, right as her committee was considering a slate of crucial bills.
With the hearing in mid-stream, Migden left for her fund-raiser, and she was followed by several lobbyists who had legislation before the committee.
“I had a luncheon, and it wasn’t advertised as a chair of the appropriations committee event – it was just a rank-and-file member having a luncheon,” Migden said. “There’s never been a correlation between a fund-raiser and a vote.”
Doug Heller, an advocate for the the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, said such fund-raisers illustrate that those who can afford $1,000-a-plate meals receive last-minute access.
“What’s interesting is the lack of subtlety, the brazenness with political fund raising these days of the year,” Heller said. “It makes those of us whose role is to speak for the average consumer wonder what kind of chance does the public have against the special interests.”
Migden, however, blamed the current system on a lack of public money for campaigns, which she said forces legislators to raise funds elsewhere.
“It’s not fun; nobody enjoys it,” she said. “If we created a reasonable public financing mechanism or some mechanism to do away with the whole fund-raising component, we’d all support it.”
Late-session fund-raising isn’t limited to any particular party or house. Leading Democrats and Republicans hold events, most at a cost of $500 and up.
The big-money events often are hosted by Gov. Gray Davis, including a $7,500-per-person golf tournament this past weekend at Pebble Beach.
Salinas, whose Garlic Gala invitations focused more on the food and less on the fund-raising, said events such as his own are used to “prepare for the next campaign season and build some reserves.”
Anthony Gonsalves, a longtime lobbyist whose father, Joe, served 12 years in the Legislature, said fund raising is the only way lawmakers can survive.
For companies, Gonsalves said, it is a crucial opportunity to establish bonds with lawmakers.
“There’s very few that we miss,” he noted. “We’ve gone to eight in one day.”
How does one endure through such a full slate of $1,000 steaks and smoothies?
“You drink a lot of Diet Coke,” Gonsalves said.