Buying Your Vote

*Unlimited Independent Expenditure accounts pour big money into the MontaƱez-Padilla race

By Mindy Farabee

You can be my witness,†says city Councilmember Alex Padilla, offering up a view of the well-worn soles of his wingtips. “We’ve been out there walking precincts constantly. I’m not asking for anyone but the voters to help me win this election.â€

Well, voters and, perhaps, some friends with very deep pockets. Last Friday night, at their final public debate before the June 6 primary, state Assemblymember Cindy Montañez charged that Padilla, her opponent in the race for state Senate District 20, has been the beneficiary of late-filed independent expenditure accounts funded by powerful business forces who have a stake in getting her out of Sacramento.

“Car dealers are spending close to $200,000 against me in this election because I stood up for you,†says Montañez, who recently authored the Car Buyer’s Bill of Rights, due to go into effect this July 1. “There’s a lot of sleazy money coming in. We need to get the dirty special interest money out of politics.â€

In 2000, Californians took a stab at that, when voters elected to place restrictions on campaign donations directly given to candidates. In doing so, however, they may have helped enable a different mechanism by which special interest money could become a deciding factor in elections. With contributions to individual candidates from labor unions and most trade groups capped at $6,700, and individuals limited to $3,300, unrestricted Independent Expenditure (IE) accounts â€" which support specific candidates but are barred legally from coordinating efforts with their campaigns â€" can swoop in and provide huge dollops of additional resources. Overall, according to Bob Stern, president of the L.A.-based, nonpartisan Center for Governmental Studies, California’s caps on campaign contributions still constitute an improvement because IEs only kick in during competitive elections, and “90 percent of our races aren’t competitive,†Stern says.

But the race between Montañez and Padilla is currently one of the most competitive in the state, and, in addition to the nearly $2 million the candidates have jointly raised, around $300,000 of combined IE money has now been spent in this election. That type of situation is a potential mixed blessing, Stern notes. “To get their attention, you have to hit voters over the head, and that takes money [because] voters are mainly getting their information from ads,†he says. “But independent expenditure accounts can backfire and turn voters off.â€

Padilla has tried to distance himself from this most recent round of IEs backing him, and repeatedly stressed the grassroots bona fides of his campaign, noting he collected some 3,000 more signatures than necessary just to qualify for the ballot. “I wanted to send a message about the level of volunteerism my campaign would attract,†he says. At Friday’s event, his foot soldiers were present in force, clapping and cheering so loudly that at one point the candidate himself had to shush them.

And as far as special interest money is concerned, Padilla spokeswoman Rose Kapolczynski notes that her guy isn’t the only one benefiting.

“There are about equal Independent Expenditure accounts in the race right now,†Kapolczynski says. “The assemblywoman has about $130,000 in IEs from UNITE HERE, the California Tribal Business Alliance, and the Peace Officers Research Association.â€

Traditionally, though, Angelenos â€" a generally progressive, labor-friendly lot â€" haven’t so much taken issue with the influence unions have been able to exert in local elections. Just ask Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who raised the ire of voters up and down the state â€" and got pummeled in L.A. â€" by referring to nurses, firefighters, and teachers as “special interests,†although, technically speaking, they can be.

Many of Padilla’s IE benefactors, on the other hand, hail from the world of business, complicating the idea that he is a progressive, liberal Democrat. Asked why car dealers, insurance agents, and corporations â€" who have coalesced into Californians Allied for a Prosperous Economy, the IE that entered the race last Wednesday â€" might want to throw some considerable weight behind him, the candidate admitted he was stumped.

“Independent Expenditure accounts are just that: independent,†Padilla says. “I honestly don’t know. You’d have to ask them that.â€

“Basically, we reviewed his record and will believe he will be a strong leader in Sacramento who will bring more balance to issues we’re interested in, such as lawsuit and civil litigation reform,†says John Sullivan, president of the Civil Justice Association, one of the groups funding Californians Allied. As to whether Montañez should take this personally, “We’re supporting [Padilla] for those reasons,†Sullivan continues. “That’s the beginning and ending of our efforts here.â€

See the article on Los Angeles City Beat 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.)

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