By Thomas D. Elias
With polls showing Californians distrust their legislators more than citizens of almost any other state, Democratic state Sen. Alex Padilla, of Los Angeles, now a candidate to become secretary of state, has an idea to help restore public trust.
Even before the corruption indictments of Democratic Sens. Ron Calderon and Leland Yee, Padilla realized how unseemly it is for lawmakers to raise campaign dollars right when they are deciding how to vote on important bills.
Notwithstanding former Assembly Speaker Jesse Unruh’s famous quip – “If you can’t drink their booze, (sleep with) their women, eat their food and then vote against them, you don’t belong in politics.” – decision-time fund-raising still looks bad and erodes public trust.
Especially when legislators then vote precisely the way big-money donors want. It’s often a “chicken or the egg” question when trying to determine whether lawmakers attract special interest support because of their own voting proclivities or vote the way they do because of special interest donations. Either way, the practice looks terrible.
So Padilla proposes to ban campaign contributions to lawmakers during the final 100 days of each legislative session. That’s not as extreme as forbidding donations during the entire session, but the longer ban (legislative sessions run seven or eight months yearly) might be impractical.
And outlawing donations for entire sessions could put legislators seeking reelection at a disadvantage against challengers not subject to a ban, while leaving millionaire self-funded candidates with an even bigger advantage than they often enjoy now.
A shorter, 100-day ban is something incumbents could live with. They usually enjoy huge advantages over challengers in both fund-raising and name-recognition.
But some of Sacramento’s most prolific fundraisers say it wouldn’t change much if fundraising during either entire sessions or during the finishing rush were outlawed.
“It’s just rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic,” said Dan Weitzman, who gathers funds for major Democrats. “This simply front-loads fundraising. You’d simply tell people on July 1 to mail their checks in on Sept. 1 or Sept. 15 or whenever the session ends.”
Adds Democratic consultant Steve Maviglio, who has worked for three Assembly speakers and run many initiative campaigns, “The concept is great, but the reality is not workable. This would be nothing more than a Band-Aid, at best. I favor full disclosure of all donations within 24 hours instead; then everyone will know who’s getting what from whom.”
But past history indicates that even if donations were posted immediately, very few voters would see them.
Still, it’s clear the public wants some kind of action to clean things up in Sacramento. So why not start with a small step like Padilla’s proposal? The one thing it would do is keep legislators from fundraising during the times they cast their most important votes. And not having to confront big donors might make it a easier for them to get back to basics, and actually vote their consciences or their constituents’ best interests.
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Thomas D. Elias is a syndicated columnist.