SACRAMENTO, Calif.: California’s politicians are expected to break campaign finance records this year as they enjoy – for what may be their last election season – running for office in a state with absolutely no campaign contribution limits.
“California has been the Wild West in terms of campaign financing,” said Bob Stern, president of the Los Angeles Center for Governmental Studies. “It’s like a poker game here. You either ante up or you’re not in the game. Not that you win the pot, but to even be playing it appears you’ve got to pay.”
High finance politics has put Gov. Gray Davis, who is running for his second term, in a hot seat – teachers union officials say they were stunned when he asked for a $1 million contribution during a meeting in his Capitol office earlier this year. Stung by a controversy surrounding a potentially costly computer software deal, Davis has ordered a review of the state’s practice of signing no-bid contracts.
Starting next year, candidates for statewide office in California actually will have some contribution limits, albeit higher ones than most states.
But until then, the coffers are wide open for those running for governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, secretary of state and assorted other constitutional positions. Candidates for the Legislature do have some limits, although those are among the highest in the country.
“A lot more money is being raised and spent in California than anywhere else in the country,” said Jim Knox, executive director of California Common Cause. “We have state Senate races here that cost as much as national Senate races.”
Republican gubernatorial candidate Bill Simon has said he’s planning to raise as much as $60 million on the race, and Democratic Davis, with more than $42 million collected already, is on track to at least match him.
If they meet their goals, that will mean this election cost more than twice the 1998 gubernatorial race when Davis defeated Republican Dan Lungren, and more than 10 times the amount it cost to run for governor back in 1988 when California voters overwhelmingly passed the first state law limiting contributions.
That law, Proposition 73, limited contributions to legislative and statewide candidates to $1,000 per donor including individuals, labor unions and corporations. It was struck down by a federal judge in 1990, but not before one election cycle.
In 1990, the only year that Proposition 73 was in full effect, contributions to legislative candidates in the general election fell to $23.9 million from $40.1 million in 1988. General election contributions soared to $35.4 million in 1992 and reached $55.6 million in 1996.
The most recent campaign finance law, Proposition 34, which takes effect next year, is so weak that the League of Women Voters – which has been advocating campaign finance reform since 1974 – opposed it when it was on the November 2000 ballot.
“We are certainly one of the states with one of the poorest records of money that just flows into campaigns,” said league advocate Trudy Schafer. “As a result, voters get turned off. They get slicker messages than they want and less real opportunity to get balanced messages.”
Schafer concedes that California is an incredibly expensive place to run a campaign – there are more voters here than anywhere else in the country, and they’re more diverse. Furthermore, it’s a huge state, the third largest in the United States at 163,707 square miles, with four distinct television markets.
“You have to go on TV to get your message across and you have to have money to go on TV,” said Davis spokesman Roger Salazar.
In California in 2000, an estimated $127 million was spent on 119,492 political ads – by far the most of any other state. New York ranked second – with about $91 million spent on 74,698 ads, according to the Virginia-based Campaign Media Analysis Group.
“There’s no other state like California, it is far and away the most expensive media state in the country,” said Paul Taylor, founder of the Washington, D.C.-based Alliance for Better Campaigns.
But television costs can’t entirely explain the vast sums going into California’s political races this year, said Steve Weiss at Center for Responsive Politics in Washington, D.C.
“Davis appears to be paving new ground with regard to fund-raising at the gubernatorial level,” Weiss said.
The problem with expensive politics is that even if there isn’t outright corruption, “large amounts of campaign contributions create the possibility in the minds of the public that a vote is being bought or a decision being purchased,” Weiss said.
Doug Heller, consumer advocate with the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights in Santa Monica, said that in California, large corporate givers “wield so much power in Sacramento that it’s nearly impossible to get authentic citizen legislation through.”
Davis, who has received 56 contributions for more than $100,000 this election cycle, has been scrambling to avoid allegations that money brings political pressure.
A state investigation is underway into a $95 million no-bid state contract awarded last year to software giant Oracle Corp. An Oracle lobbyist made a $25,000 contribution to the Davis campaign days after the deal was signed.
Davis has denied any link between the contribution and the contract, but last week he returned the money.