National focus on election unlikely;

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Eight initiatives on special vote ballot

Ventura County Star (California)

The last time a national audience tuned into California politics, it was a remarkable show. Featuring America’s greatest action hero, a diminutive comedic actor and more Desperate Candidates than Wisteria Lane has housewives, the recall campaign of 2003 was a compelling national drama.

It was an odd-numbered year, California had the only significant election in the nation and America couldn’t get enough. CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, Leno and Letterman — everybody followed the recall.

Now it’s time for the sequel.

It’s another odd-numbered year, and again California is holding an election, an off-the-calendar round of voting that features eight ballot initiatives. Again its action-hero governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, is in the spotlight. He ordered the special election so that a vote could be held on his favored initiatives on Nov. 8.

Will America be watching California again?

Not likely.

This time around, it seems, only the insiders will care.

Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, the USC political scientist who in 2003 was under contract as recall analyst for “The Today Show,” says she doesn’t expect many long-distance calls this campaign season.

“The national media outlets will do one or two stories, and they won’t be on the issues,” she said. “Generally, the theme of these stories is, ‘Oh, my, what’s happened to Arnold!’ We’ll see a spate of stories that say this is life-or-death for Arnold Schwarzenegger, and then after the election there will be one story either on his resurrection or writing his political obituary.”

Washington Post political columnist David Broder, who tracks national political trends as closely as anyone in the nation, was intrigued enough by California’s special election to catch a plane to the West Coast last week. But even with the Schwarzenegger angle, he said, the Post’s coverage of this event will be nothing like it was for the recall. “We covered that like it was a presidential election,” Broder said.

It is difficult for an election featuring only ballot measures to generate much excitement in newsrooms in New York, or even within political circles in the nation’s capital, said Ben Tulchin, head of the West Coast office for Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, a national polling firm based in Washington, D.C.

“It’s always a case of D.C. never understanding the initiative process,” Tulchin said. “Any sort of D.C.-based group has trouble coming to grips with California.”

There are exceptions — and they involve those national groups that have the most at stake in the outcome of California’s Nov. 8 vote.

Of the eight measures on the ballot, one is targeted at a job protection cherished by teachers’ unions, another at all unions that represent public employees, and a third takes aim at the prices pharmaceutical companies charge for prescription drugs.

Those national groups with interests directly on the line — organized labor, the pharmaceutical industry and conservative activists, who see public employee unions as enemies to tax cuts — are focused intently on what’s happening in California this fall.

Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, said he believes that
Proposition 75, which would force public employee unions to get annual written permission from members before spending any portion of their dues for political purposes, could kick-start a national movement.

“It’s something that’s been moving in smaller states. If California passes it, it will be on the ballot in five to 10 states next year,” said Norquist, perhaps the nation’s most outspoken proponent of reducing government at all levels. “If California doesn’t pass it, it will be on the ballot in just two or three states.”

Norquist said he believes, however, that advocates for Proposition 75 in California will be mostly on their own financially in the fall campaign, unlike when a similar measure was on the ballot in 1998. Back then, Norquist and a group of wealthy conservative activists including the late John Walton of Arkansas, J. Patrick Rooney of Indiana and James Leininger of Texas combined to put up nearly a half-million dollars to push Proposition 226.

This time around, Norquist said, there will be no large infusion of contributions from out-of-state conservative activists.

“I think it will all be California money,” he said. “This is not North or South Dakota where there’s no money in the state. Everybody knows that in California there’s plenty of money.”

That view hasn’t stopped Schwarzenegger from aggressively seeking out-of-state money to promote the package of four initiatives he supports, which now includes Proposition 75. The California governor this year has held fundraisers in New York, Washington, Illinois, Florida, Ohio, Nevada and — perhaps the most celebrated — Boston, where he sold off seats to his box at Fenway Park for the opening concert of the Rolling Stones U.S. tour.

Doug Heller of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, a group that has protested Schwarzenegger’s out-of-state fundraising, says the effect has been to make Californians “lab rats” to test larger issues of concern to national interest groups.

Analyzing the $18 million Schwarzenegger and his committees have raised so far this year, the foundation found $4.6 million — or 25.5 percent — has come from out of state.

“As a Californian, I think our legislative and regulatory decisions should be made in the interests of businesses and residents here in California,” Heller said. Noting that the special election has been driven by Schwarzenegger and is being conducted only at the governor’s insistence, he said, “Californians are being driven to the polls in part by out-of-state interests and their influence on the process.”

If the level of interest is measured in dollars, then the nation’s pharmaceutical companies are most acutely attuned to the Nov. 8 special election, in which two competing measures designed to implement prescription-drug discount plans are on the ballot.

The nation’s leading drug companies have pooled together more than $85 million, including nearly $10 million each from the big four firms of GlaxoSmithKline, Johnson & Johnson, Merck and Pfizer, to fight Proposition 79 and support the industry-sponsored Proposition 78.

The chief difference between the measures is that Proposition 79 includes a provision that would require the state to leverage its Medi-Cal purchasing power in an attempt to negotiate discounts that would also be broadly available to middle- and low-income Californians.

Jan Faiks, vice president for state government affairs and law for the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers Association, said the industry is more concerned with a liability provision in Proposition 79 than with the possibility that the California measure, if passed, would spread across the nation.

She notes that Proposition 79 is based on a law in Maine that has been tied up in legal challenges and never fully implemented.

“Prior history says that neither the Clinton administration nor the Bush administration has approved this kind of leveraging program,” she said. “If 79 passes and never gets implemented, how’s that going to be a precedent for anybody?”

Most troublesome to the industry is a provision in the initiative backed by consumer groups and organized labor that would allow for private action lawsuits to be filed against drug companies to seek damages for “unconscionable” pricing or “unreasonable profit.”

“There were 210 million prescriptions filled in California last year, and every one would be a potential lawsuit,” Faiks said. “The biotechnology industry would be devastated. It would send a very bad business signal.”

The pharmaceutical industry’s contributions to the initiative campaigns have already topped the record for any one side in a California ballot measure battle — surpassing the war chest spent by the state’s Indian gaming tribes on Proposition 1A in March 2000 to gain the exclusive right to operate slot machines.

Faiks said the amount of spending simply reflects a political fact of life. “It’s about $30 million for each initiative, and that’s the going rate in California,” she said.

The California special election has also caught the attention of national labor unions — even at a time when organized labor is reeling from a bitter split in July that saw two large unions, the Service Employees International Union and the Teamsters, pull out of the AFL-CIO alliance.

“I think the labor folks in D.C. understand the importance of Proposition 75,” said Karen Ackerman, political director for the national AFL-CIO.

She noted that AFL-CIO President John Sweeney attended a Labor Day demonstration in California and predicted that he and other labor leaders will spent a lot of time in the state between now and Nov. 8 — just as they did in 1998 when the first proposal to limit union dues was on the ballot.

In that election, 53 percent of voters said no to Proposition 226.

“This has pretty much made it to the top of the list again,” she said.

Denise Cardinal, spokeswoman for the National Education Association, said the nation’s largest teachers’ union has committed to spend “a few million, possibly more as time goes on” in the campaign to defeat three initiatives of most concern to teachers: Proposition 74, which would make it more difficult for teachers to obtain due process rights that protect them from being fired without cause; Proposition 75; and Proposition 76, which would change state budgeting rules to make it easier to cut school funding during difficult economic times.

Cardinal said the NEA is also sending to the West Coast political staff members from its Washington, D.C., headquarters and from affiliates outside of California to help in the campaign.

“California put out a call, and we’re going to be there for them,” she said.

Asked whether the national group’s efforts to beat back initiatives hostile to teachers’ unions in California will prevent future political brushfires in other states, Cardinal responded: “That’s the hope.”
Contact the author at [email protected]

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