Independent Groups Lavish Money on Races

By Nancy Vogel, Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO â€" In a final sprint toward election day, special interests have begun sinking millions of dollars into the state's tightest legislative races to help candidates they favor.

To get around laws that limit direct contributions, real estate agents, nurses, lawyers, prescription drug makers and others have formed or donated to so-called independent expenditure committees that are pooling their money to buy television ads and campaign literature on their candidates' behalf.

So far this month, such groups have given candidates nearly $3 million. The practice is also common in national political races.

In California, the committees are free to spend unlimited amounts as long as they don't coordinate with candidates. But Democrats alleged this week that the heaviest-spending committee, backed by some of the state's biggest businesses, coordinated the purchase of television ads with a Republican Assembly candidate in Santa Barbara.

The candidate, Bob Pohl, denied any collaboration. So did JobsPAC, an independent expenditure committee formed by the California Manufacturers Assn. and the California Chamber of Commerce.

"The decision to reallocate our resources in terms of TV was made independent of any consideration of what JobsPAC was doing," Pohl said. "We did not coordinate anything with JobsPAC in terms of scheduling our ads."

JobsPAC spokesman Todd Harris said: "We went on the air, beginning and end of story. I've never even spoken to someone with the Pohl campaign. We went on the air with our spots. That's the one piece of this we control."

The campaign of Pohl's Democratic opponent, Pedro Nava, on Monday asked the state Fair Political Practices Commission to investigate.

Michael Shimpock, Nava's campaign manager, said the Pohl campaign paid to run 30-second ads on KEYT-TV, an ABC affiliate in Santa Barbara, from Sept. 25 to Nov. 1. The Pohl campaign canceled that contract Oct. 15, KEYT sales manager Jim Valice said.

With a check dated Oct. 5, JobsPAC purchased air time on KEYT to run its own 30-second ads on behalf of Pohl from last Sunday through Oct. 31, Shimpock said.

"They bought the same spots he canceled," Shimpock said. "It's a fairly blatant violation against the ban on coordination."

Fair Political Practices Commission spokeswoman Sigrid Bathen said the agency had not yet received the complaint.

Independent expenditure campaigns have proliferated since voters capped direct contributions to legislative candidates four years ago by passing Proposition 34, which generally limits donations to lawmakers to $3,200. Independent expenditure committees typically launch their campaigns a couple of weeks before election day and tend to be financed by the same interest groups that donated generously to politicians before Proposition 34.

Nearly all of the independent campaign money has been spent in a few hotly contested districts statewide where the proportion of Republican and Democratic voters is fairly even. Buoyed by Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's popularity, Republicans hope to gain seats in the Nov. 2 election and improve their standing in the Legislature, where Democrats outnumber them 48 to 32 in the Assembly and 25 to 14 in the Senate.

Almost a third of the $3 million spent so far this month by independent expenditure campaigns came through JobsPAC, whose donors included the California Motor Car Dealers Assn., Sempra Energy, Pacific Gas & Electric Co., ChevronTexaco Corp., food processors, insurance and accounting firms, banks, health providers and developers. On Monday, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America gave JobsPAC $75,000, records show.

With television ads, mail brochures and websites, JobsPAC has targeted two races besides the 35th Assembly District contest between Pohl and Nava: the 53rd Assembly District race in Los Angeles County between Republican Greg Hill, the mayor of Redondo Beach, and Democrat Mike Gordon, former El Segundo mayor; and the 76th Assembly District race in San Diego between Republican Tricia Hunter, a former assemblywoman, and Democrat Lori Saldana, a community college professor and Sierra Club activist.

JobsPAC has spent more than $320,000 for television advertising attacking Saldana's positions on immigration and more than $280,000 criticizing Gordon's management of his telemarketing business.

Harris, of JobsPAC, said the committee is trying to "build an army of supporters in the Legislature for the governor."

"Gov. Schwarzenegger is working overtime to make California a better place to do business and an easier place to create jobs," he said. "The purpose of JobsPAC is to put members of the Legislature on notice that you'd better think twice before you start running up an anti-jobs, anti-business record."

Gordon's campaign manager, Steve Barkan, said his candidate cannot afford to always respond to the JobsPAC-paid ads because he made a commitment to limit the money he would raise during the campaign. "I've never seen so much money [spent] in such a short period of time," Barkan said. "We have to respond. We're trying to point out who JobsPAC is and why they're trying to defeat Mike Gordon."

Real estate interests are also heavily involved in independent campaigns. They have spent nearly $700,000 this month, mostly to support incumbent state Sen. Mike Machado (D-Linden) and Steve Kuykendall, a Republican former assemblyman running against Sen. Betty Karnette (D-Long Beach) for the assembly district including Long Beach.

Assemblywoman Nicole Parra (D-Hanford), fighting for reelection in a Bakersfield-area district against Republican Dean Gardner, has received more than $225,000 in independent expenditure support from agribusiness interests, firefighters, prison guards, dentists and a group that backs women running for office. The California Dental Assn. has also spent $212,000 opposing Saldana.

Robert Stern, president of the nonprofit Center for Government Studies in Los Angeles, said he would prefer to see special interests spending on independent campaigns than directly donating to a politician in a safe district. "Everyone knows its only purpose is to have access to the official," Stern said of such a donation, "because everybody knows there's no race."

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