Cash Committees Target Primaries

By Dan Morain and Nancy Vogel, Times Staff Writers

SACRAMENTO â€" A printed broadside blasts Republican Assemblyman John Campbell, who is seeking a state Senate seat in Orange County, as soft on illegal immigration. California's prison guards union and the Pechanga Band of Luiseño Indians paid for the brochure.

Another mailer touts the anti-tax positions taken by Campbell's foe in the GOP primary fight, fellow Assemblyman Ken Maddox (R-Garden Grove). Public employee unions, whose contracts have been criticized as too rich, are paying for it.

Welcome to the world of independent political expenditures. California law bars individual and corporate donors from giving more than $3,200 directly to the candidates of their choice. But it permits them to establish independent committees and spend unlimited sums if they operate at arm's length from the candidates. Heading into Tuesday's primary, interest groups have spent at least $5.25 million on independent efforts to help â€" and hurt â€" candidates this year, campaign finance reports show.

The biggest spenders: unions that represent state employees, trial lawyers who seek to expand the right to sue, insurance companies and business groups that want to limit lawsuits, and dentists and doctors who tap the state budget for the cost of treating indigent patients.

Some independent committees are outspending the candidates they back. Democrat Claudia Alvarez, seeking an Assembly seat in Santa Ana, has raised $212,000 while developers, Realtors, dentists and others have spent no less than $555,000 on her behalf. A California Chamber of Commerce-backed group largely funded by the insurance industry has spent $93,000 attacking Alvarez's foe, former Assemblyman Tom Umberg.

Alvarez described herself as "pleasantly surprised" by the support. Umberg called it "shocking that groups that are traditionally the support base of the Republican Party should be weighing in so heavily in a Democratic primary."

But in California, there are few so-called swing districts, in which either Republicans or Democrats could win in the November general election. Most legislative districts are weighted heavily toward one party or the other. As a result, the real fight for most seats takes place in the primary.

Business groups are backing pro-business Democrats; public employee unions and trial attorneys are supporting labor- and consumer-oriented Democrats.

Consumer Attorneys of California, which represents lawyers who sue businesses in personal injury and other cases, helps fund no fewer than three independent groups, and is backing half a dozen candidates. With labor and environmentalist allies, the three groups have spent more than $700,000 on primary fights.

On the other side is a group calling itself Moderate Democrats for California, the single largest independent spender this year, at $579,000. Its money comes from insurance, telecommunications, energy and financial services firms, plus $100,000 from the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians and $5,000 from the company that owns Hollywood Park racetrack.

The largest beneficiary of the group's money â€" $231,000 so far â€" is Vince Hall, a former aide to Gov. Gray Davis who is seeking an Assembly seat in San Diego.

The California Teachers Assn. has come to the aid of Hall's foe, Heidi Von Szeliski, with $100,000. Szeliski, a Democratic pollster, has worked on more than 60 political campaigns for the teachers' union.

Another independent expenditure committee â€" Californians United â€" has sunk more than $100,000 into television ads and polling for South Gate Mayor Hector De La Torre, a Democrat seeking an Assembly seat in the Southgate area against Montebello Unified School District board member Hector Chacon, also a Democrat.

Californians United is funded by Philip Morris USA, the world's largest tobacco company; the Morongo Band of Mission Indians, owners of a casino outside Palm Springs; Southern California Edison; and alcohol producer Diageo North America Inc.

Republicans are involved in fewer primary fights than Democrats this year. But just as pro-business groups dabble in Democratic primaries, Democratic donors are seeking to sway voters in the Republican primary between Campbell and Maddox for the Senate seat held by veteran Ross Johnson (R-Irvine) who is being forced to retire by term limits.

So far, independent groups have spent $326,000 on Maddox, with more than half coming from a group called the Native American and Peace Officers Political Action Committee. It is funded by the Pechanga Indian band, owners of a casino in Temecula, and the California Correctional Peace Officers Assn.

Maddox supported unsuccessful Pechanga-backed legislation last year that would have given Indian tribes more say over development that might affect their sacred sites. Campbell (R-Irvine) opposed the measure.

Maddox, a former police officer, has endeared himself to public employee unions by supporting their pay packages and other labor-related legislation they have sought.

Both he and Campbell voted for the legislation that implemented a pay package negotiated by Gov. Gray Davis for prison officers.

Under the contract, officers stand to receive a raise of as much as 37% over the contract's five-year life, boosting their annual pay to $73,000. Maddox defended the vote, saying the contract is reasonable and that the guards have "an incredibly challenging job."

Campbell said Tuesday, however, that given California's budget problems, the contract is "overly generous" and should be renegotiated.

Campbell said the attack mailers aimed at him will take a toll.

"There is no question that when groups spend $300,000 against you," he said, "it is going to have an effect."


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