Public Financing Could End Pay to Play
The mayor of Los Angeles could go down in flames because of
it, and the governor of California is turning out to be one
of the biggest frauds in political history because of
I'm talking about money, money, money and more money.
Specifically, I'm talking about political fundraising.
You are certainly entitled to believe that in the last city
election, powerful Los Angeles business execs wrote
campaign checks to Jim Hahn because they believed he would
be an administrative genius and legislative visionary.
But by coincidence, some of Hahn's more generous donors
have big fat city contracts. The mayor's challengers
â€" all of whom have their own taint when it
comes to fundraising â€" are accusing Hahn of
running a pay-to-play City Hall, and federal investigators
have their own questions.
The fundraising compulsion is both shady and contagious.
Even as the Hahn story plays out, the president of the Los
Angeles Board of Education seems to be coming down with
Jose Huizar, who has no opposition, has raised more than
$330,000 for his reelection campaign â€" or who
knows what future political race. As Times reporter Cara
Mia DiMassa pointed out, much of the money is from
companies that might just be interested in contracts to
build new schools.
As for Gov. Arnold $chwarzenegger, where do I even
Maybe with an apology to Gray Davis.
I used to joke that the former governor had an
obsessive-compulsive fundraising disorder, but that was
before I saw what $chwarzenegger was capable of.
The man is on his way to raising $150 million in three
years, having scheduled a series of dinners in which it
costs $100,000 just to get close enough to cut his rubber
chicken, as Robert Salladay reported this month. And this
was the guy who was supposed to clean up Sacramento.
"I'm frankly confused by his behavior, which seems so
contrary to the basis upon which he ran in the first
place," says Susan Lerner of the California Clean Money
"The money is not for me," the governor said on the
Of course not.
"It's all to go out and to be able to have TV spots,"
$chwarzenegger continued, "and to educate the people and to
let them know which way to vote and that we together can
We're all idiots, basically. But we are going to get smart
by watching political ads on TV, paid for with millions of
dollars in donations from the governor's favorite $pecial
Like me, Lerner is somewhat skeptical, and she has a far
better idea for reforming California:
Public financing of campaigns for state office.
This would cost each adult about $5, a small price to pay
for draining the cesspool.
Arizona and Maine did it, and the reviews are pretty good.
Arizonans have seen a new era of bipartisan
problem-solving. Less budget money is eaten up repaying
political donors. And public financing has opened politics
to more women and minorities.
"You run on the strength of your ideas, not on how many
powerful friends you have," says Lerner. "In Maine, a
waitress ran for office and won. In Arizona, a grad student
and potter got fed up with the way things were, and she ran
Lerner's California Clean Money Campaign is behind a state
Assembly bill that would raise $120 million annually to
finance campaigns, giving predetermined equal amounts to
candidates who qualify. Lerner and other clean-money
supporters are still debating the source of the $120
"The most creative way of financing it was done in
Arizona," says Bob Stern of the Center for Governmental
Studies. "They add 10% to every traffic fine, speeding
ticket, criminal and civil fine, and they're rolling in
money, all of which goes to fund the campaigns."
In other words, if you get pulled over doing 90 mph on the
405, and the ticket is $150, it would go up to $165. Each
county and city, by the way, could enact similar
clean-money campaigns by finding their own ways to finance
Lerner says another possibility is a fee on oil drilling,
which could cover the entire cost of publicly financed
campaigns for state office.
"Every oil-producing state in the country, including Texas,
has an oil severance fee, but California doesn't."
To qualify for public financing, Lerner says, a person
would have to do some nominal private fundraising. You'd
have to raise $5 each from 500 people to run for Assembly
â€" or from 15,000 people to run for governor
â€" and the rest of your money would be
No more candidates cozying up to developers. No groveling
at the feet of union bosses. No cigar nights with insurance
and pharmaceutical pooh-bahs.
If a big shot were to opt out of the public system and use
his or her own money, the opponent would get matching
public dollars up to a predetermined limit.
The opponent would enjoy the advantage of an angry public
that doesn't like seeing a greedy, privately financed
candidate grab scads of special interest money, thereby
driving up the public tab for his clean-money opponent.
Will we see this kind of reform any time soon? Not without
a high-profile supporter, Lerner says, and she has someone
"He's the one who really spotlighted the problem in his
recall campaign," she says of $chwarzenegger, who could be
putting his bully pulpit to far better use. "He has real
potential to be a leader and an innovator."
Steve Lopez writes Sunday, Wednesday and Friday. Reach him
at email@example.com and read previous columns at
See the article on Los Angeles Times website