Cleaning Up Politics With 'Clean Money'

By Chris Coursey, Columnist

The anticipated revelations of Jack Abramoff, the so-called "super-lobbyist" who lavished millions of dollars on members of Congress, threaten to lay bare the corrupting influence of money on politics.

Which shouldn't surprise anyone, except maybe Capt. Louis Renault.

Renault, of course, is the French cop in the movie "Casablanca" who famously says he is "shocked - shocked! - to find that gambling is going on" at Rick's Cafe. At that point, a croupier hands him a wad of cash and says, "Your winnings, sir."

Likewise, it's pretty much only the people involved in the system who express shock - shock! - that lobbyists like Abramoff are using wads of cash to tilt the political playing field.

Arnold Schwarzenegger could see it - until he, too, became part of it.

"Here's how it works," he said in a TV ad when he ran for governor. "Money comes in, favors go out. The people lose."

Then he got elected and set new records for fund-raising.

But don't blame the politicians, or even the lobbyists, says Bonnie Allen of Petaluma. "Lobbying isn't the problem - it's a symptom," she says.

The cure, according to Allen and a growing number of good-government activists, is "clean money."

Clean money is campaign cash that comes with no strings attached, money that is given to candidates with no expectation that they will offer anything in return except to fairly and honestly represent all of their constituents.

It's also another way of describ- ing "public campaign financing," a phrase that turns a lot of people off. But would they rather continue the system that produced Jack Abramoff?

Already, clean money is changing the political culture in several states, including Arizona, Maine and, most recently, Connecticut. A bill in the California Assembly seeks to make this state the next.

AB 583 by Assemblywoman Loni Hancock, D-Berkeley, would provide public financing to candidates for statewide office and the Legislature who can also show grassroots support in the form of a qualifying number of $5 donations from individuals. No candidate would be required to use public financing, but those who do would accept limits on how much they can spend. (For details, go to

The bill doesn't specify exactly where the money will come from, but some suggest that a good source could be found by closing the tax loopholes enjoyed by many of the corporations that now spend so much money on campaign contributions in California.

I know you're shocked - shocked! - that a Berkeley Democrat is behind this, but she's not alone. North Bay Assembly members Patty Berg, Noreen Evans and Joe Nation are among the co-authors. In Arizona in 2002, 22 Republicans and 17 Democrats used clean money to win office.

In California, Assembly members begin fund-raising for the next cam- paign cycle almost immediately after winning election to a two-year term. With clean money, they could concentrate on something else.

Would it shock you if they found a better use for their time?

In last Wednesday's column describing the rift between Schwarzenegger and Democrats in the Legisature, I quoted Assemblywoman Evans asking, "Why should we do anything to help him in an election year?" While Evans acknowledges that "might be the prevailing attitude in the Legislature," she says it is not her "personal attitude."

Also Wednesday, I said leaders of state employee unions plan to support a ballot initiative raising the minimum wage and tying future increases to the cost of living. While union leaders do support cost-of-living provisions, they have not yet endorsed either of the minimum- wage initiatives now in circulation.

See the article on Santa Rosa Press-Democrat website

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