Arnold's 'Very Special' Election
Could this be it? Have we finally been subjected to a
campaign so annoying, insulting and distasteful that we'll
finally rise up and charge the gates?
Maybe, possibly, hopefully, says Susan Lerner of the
California Clean Money Campaign. She's smiling through her
misery, even as the ka-ching of campaign cash echoes
through the state.
"This most recent story about the drug company money is
really depressing," she said Friday, the day Dan Morain
reported in The Times that pharmaceutical giants had given
stacks of money to Republicans, Democrats and civic leaders
of the NAACP and Mexican American Political Assn.
And what did all those recipients have in common?
They endorsed Proposition 78, a smarmy piece of handiwork
â€" sponsored by the drug-makers
â€" that would avert state caps on the cost of
"These are good people, good organizations," Lerner said of
the cash recipients, an observation now open to debate.
"It's very disheartening to see them caught up in
Who isn't caught up? The unions own the Democrats, the
insurance companies and developers own the Republicans, and
two years after a historic coup driven by a Hollywood
has-been who promised to clean up the mess, California is
for sale as never before.
Virtually every election cycle, I talk to Lerner or one of
the other sad and lonely advocates for the kind of campaign
reform that has drained the political swamp in several
other states. We grumble and gag and agree we've sunk to
alarming new depths. I blow the bugle for radical change,
and then the next election is even worse than the last.
But this one is championship stuff, says Lerner. "Special"
is a good name for Tuesday's election, because it's a
perfect snapshot of everything that's wrong.
First off, more than $200 million has been raised to
campaign for and against the ballot propositions, money
that pays for TV ads designed to bludgeon the last active
brain cells in the state. Second, the appearance of
pay-to-play conflict is so abundant, the election stinks
halfway to Texas. Third, we're paying at least $50 million
in tax dollars to stage the thing.
But that's not all.
Gov. Schwarzenegger, you may recall, said he didn't need
anyone's money. Right around that same time, he vowed to
get the special interests out of Sacramento.
Can you believe this guy?
Schwarzenegger has busted all fundraising records, leading
the charge in a runaway cash derby. He has forced an
unnecessary election he'd love most voters to avoid in
hopes that a small group of conservative zealots will win
the day. And to put a ribbon on it all, the Terminator has
chickened out of face-to-face debates with opponents.
I'm not sure it's possible to be more hypocritical or
insulting than that.
And then we've got Arnold's Big 4 on the ballot.
Teacher tenure (Proposition 74) is a preposterous
distraction from any honest discussion of education
Cracking down on the political influence of a single group
(Proposition 75's attack on unions) raises the question:
what about the rest of Sacramento's sweethearts, including
the hordes of corporate hooligans?
The cap on spending (Proposition 76) sounds good until you
realize it could be a disaster for schools and turn the
governor into a king.
Redistricting (Proposition 77) is a nice idea. But this
thing reads like assembly instructions on Christmas
morning, it's certain to invite legal challenges and might
not accomplish its intended goals.
This stuff is frippery, not reform. If Schwarzenegger
really wanted to shake things up rather than blow kisses to
the Chamber of Commerce, he'd stump for rewriting the rules
on term limits and lead the call for campaign reform.
Term limits are fine, but not if they're so short that
we're guaranteed a preponderance of amateurs who spend half
their time learning the ropes and the other half raising
money for reelection.
"We need them to stay in Sacramento and
â€¦ figure out very complicated details
of public policy issues none of us have the time to study
or the expertise to understand," Lerner said. In other
words, they should be doing the work they're asking us to
do in Tuesday's election.
As for cleaning up campaigns, there are different ways to
go, but Lerner favors only one.
"Both [Democratic Assembly Speaker] Fabian
NuÃ±ez and Gov. Schwarzenegger have been
quoted as saying they think public financing is
interesting, but they're not sure the time has come yet,"
Of course not. Let's have a dozen more fundraising contests
like this one and see if we can drive voter turnout down to
the single digits.
To be fair, Lerner says, California has been fairly
progressive in limiting donations and requiring candidates
to disclose the names of the donors. But there are no
limits on money raised for proposition battles, and
loopholes are used to help hide the identities of donors
who are forking over millions of dollars.
Lerner's group has a reform bill, AB 583, scheduled for
consideration next year, the details of which are on the
website at caclean.org. In its current form, it wouldn't
apply to initiative campaigns, but Lerner is trying to
remedy that after watching this debacle.
As written, AB 583 would make public money available to
statewide and legislative candidates who raise enough $5
donations to be considered legitimate. With public money in
hand, they wouldn't have to grovel before union bosses or
corporate sharks who would later expect a return on their
If some gazillionaire runs for office and spends his own
money, he'd drive up the public financing of other
candidates and incur our wrath.
The estimated cost to the public?
About $5.50 per adult per year.
"It's money we believe we'll make back many times over,"
Lerner says, referring to the elimination of tax loopholes
and other bones that get tossed to the bankrollers of
campaigns like this one. "Do we want to have this same
conversation over and over, or do we want to pay the cost
of a latte and a muffin?"
If only that question were on the ballot Tuesday.
Reach the columnist at email@example.com and read
previous columns at latimes.com.
See the article on Los Angeles Times website