By Duf Sundheim
Special to Calbuzz
That renowned philosopher, Mick Jagger, gave us great political advice when he reminded us, “You can’t always get what you want.” However, in California, we’re singing “I can’t get no satisfaction” in unusual unison. The Legislature seldom receives overwhelming approval ratings; when they pass legislation, they usually please some and displease others. But lately, those who think they are doing a good job is down to friends and family. No one is getting satisfaction.
Recently California voters approved two measures: redistricting (Props 11 and 20) and the two-tiered election system (Prop 14), that when fully implemented will make our representatives more responsive to the will of the voters. However, Prop 34, passed in 2000, which dramatically reduces the amount that can be given directly to a candidate, stands as a significant roadblock to this effort.
Before redistricting reform, elected officials literally picked their voters by genetically engineering their districts. This led to outrageous results such as a district that runs from Magic Mountain in LA County to within spitting distance of Carson City, Nevada!
Under the new system, an independent commission will stop such outrages and elections will be determined not by how the lines are drawn but who local voters want. Second, with the passage of Prop 14, an action bitterly opposed by the parties, the voters took further control away from the party bosses by enabling every voter to vote for the candidate of their choice in the first or “primary” round, with the top-two squaring off in the second.
So how does Prop 34 impact these reforms? First, irrespective of such impact, Prop 34 is an utter failure. The sponsors promised it would “control campaign spending” and “reign in special interests”. It has done neither. Since its passage, campaign spending has exploded, not decreased; over $1 billion has been spent on campaigns through 2009 alone. In terms of “reigning in special interests”, between 2000 and 2006 there was a 6,144% increase in independent expenditures in legislative elections. Point One: Prop 34 should be revoked because it has failed of its essential purpose.
In terms of the reforms, Prop 34 is a major roadblock because it radically shifts power towards the party bosses and special interests. By placing severe limitations on how much individual candidates can raise and at the same time allowing parties and special interests to raise unlimited funds, the backers of Prop 34 created a perverse universe where small contributions that have limited impact go to candidates, and big contributions that often make the difference only can go to party bosses and special interests! Thus, candidates are dependent on the party bosses for funds and the bosses have not been reluctant to use the power such dependence creates.
Recently an outspoken Democratic Latina legislator, Nicole Parra, voted against the party bosses. The leadership changed the locks to her offices and made her relocate across the street from the Capitol. Needless to say, her colleagues got that not-too subtle message: buck the bosses and you literally are out on the street.
The system also prevents us from seeing who is supporting the candidates. For example, say Bernie Madoff wants to donate to Dave Smith’s race. If Madoff gives directly to Smith, even if he “maxes out”, his contribution probably will be less than 0.004% of the funds spent on Smith’s behalf — and such contribution will be disclosed. Smith gets little help and a big black eye for taking Madoff’s check.
But if Madoff gives millions to the party and the party runs the funds through the fifteen plus accounts the law requires, Smith gets the kind of help that makes a difference and no one has any way of making the connection between Madoff’s contribution and Smith’s campaign. Pretty neat, huh? Hence political parties have become the repository of all “toxic” contributions – those no candidate wants to touch. But it is these toxic contributions that often determine elections. Talk about a brownfields problem!
The goal of the reforms is to have the voters, not the party bosses, decide who is elected. To do so, the candidates voters support need to be able to compete financially. And if in raising money candidates continue to be limited to squirt guns while the parties and special interests are allowed to use fire hoses – well, you know who is going to win, and it is not going to be the voters.
Prop 34 is a serious roadblock on the road to reform — a roadblock that should be removed immediately.
Sundheim, a Palo Alto attorney, was chairman of the California Republican Party from 2003 to 2006.