Interest Groups Played Key Recall Role

By Don Thompson, Associated Press

SACRAMENTO -Despite candidates' pledges to shake up Sacramento's power structure, California's $80 million recall election was paid for largely by the same interest groups that have contributed the bulk of campaign contributions for years, records show.

More unusual were the groups that sat out the unique election -- and that the rich candidate who spent the most personal money won after spectacular previous losses by Michael Huffington, Al Checchi, Jane Harman and others who spent millions of their personal wealth on failing campaigns.

"The only viable candidates in today's system are those who are independently wealthy, or those who are willing to take huge contributions from groups they would influence as governor," said California Common Cause Director Jim Knox. "This was a continuation of a pattern that's been in effect for quite some time."

Republican Gov.-elect Arnold Schwarzenegger contributed $10 million in donations or loans to oust Democratic Gov. Gray Davis, following up on an early campaign pledge that he was so wealthy he didn't need special interest money.

However, Schwarzenegger then accepted $11.7 million in contributions, a fifth of that money from builders and developers. The only money he swore off was from gambling tribes and organized labor, both of which were supporting his rivals.

His self-funding and that by Rep. Darrell Issa ($2.3 million), former baseball commissioner Peter Ueberroth ($1.8 million), and "Ask Jeeves" creator Garrett Gruener ($1 million) made independent wealth the top financial source in the recall election.

Tribes finally eclipsed unions as the biggest donors, with spending by each topping $10 million, depending on how money spent countering Proposition 54 is counted.

The failed initiative would have barred most government collection of racial data, but millions were spent on that effort by tribes and unions in what Republicans said was a thinly disguised effort to assist Democratic Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, who raised $12.5 million for his bid. A Sacramento judge ruled Bustamante improperly used some of the tribes' money, after most of it had been spent.

Tribes picked a high-profile fight with Schwarzenegger and lost. That's likely to cost them additional taxes to help ease the state's budget crisis as they negotiate with Schwarzenegger over putting more slot machines in casinos, said Scott Lay, an education lobbyist who created the Recall Watch Web site that tracked campaign spending.

Developer and San Diego Chargers football team owner Alex Spanos was Schwarzenegger's top donor at $344,700, according to a Common Cause tally, leading the heavy support the governor-elect drew from the real estate and financial industries.

Many corporations and business groups that usually contribute heavily sat on their wallets during the campaign, however. They may have shied away from California's new campaign finance limits, speculated Knox, or rightly predicted that Schwarzenegger didn't need their money.

"The bigger story may be who didn't contribute in this election," Lay said. "You have a situation where some major players who usually take sides stayed out."

The powerful prison guards' union and other flush law enforcement organizations generally abstained, while teachers' unions mostly limited their contributions to opposing Proposition 54.

Those groups would usually have been expected to heavily support Davis, as they did in the last election, but this time figured out early on that "the governor was never likely to beat this," Lay said.

The governor still raised $17 million for his unsuccessful fight.

Lawyers, doctors and other health care providers, along with many professional associations also generally kept their checkbooks closed.

"A lot of the traditional interest groups in the Capitol tend to play it safe when it comes to contributions," said Kim Alexander, president and founder of the California Voter Foundation. "They weren't sure what strategy would be effective" during the unusual recall election.

She and other reformers worry special interests that didn't contribute during the campaign now have a tailor-made, fail-safe way of paying homage to the winner:

They can contribute risk-free to help repay the $4.5 million Schwarzenegger borrowed at 4 percent interest, money his campaign now needs to raise while he is governor to keep it from coming out of his pocket.

See the article on Contra Costa Times website

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)

   Become a Clean Money Member