Sundheim: Prop 34 a Roadblock on Road to Reform


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.

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There are 8 comments for this post

  1. avatar OC Progressive says:

    By golly yes. Why should billionaire ceonistas and banksters need to jump through hoops? Just think if Meg had been able to just give 100 million to an attractive candidate who stood a chance of winning.

    Blow up those roadblocks so the richest Americans can have unfettered access to buy elections with direct unlimited contributions to the candidates that they want to purchase.

  2. avatar chrisfinnie says:

    Calling Ms. Parra a Democrat is stretching reality a bit. She MAY still be registered that way. But it’s strictly a technicality–as you can see by her endorsements for Republican candidates. Coming from a Party that has such strict purity tests, I consider Mr. Sundheim’s plaint more than a bit funny. But thanks for the laugh anyway.

    As for the virtues you extol and hazards you warn of for the various props, maybe somebody who knows less about the issues you write about will find these arguments believable. I doubt you’ll find a lot of Calbuzz readers in that category.

    For me, I think a picture of the Koch brothers would have worked better than Bernie. As OC Progressive says, it’s pretty clear the GOP just wants to make it easier for them to buy votes. And mine’s not for sale. Sorry.

  3. avatar Donald from Pasadena says:

    Sorry, Mr. Sundheim, but Prop. 34 IS reform, and its repeal would be anything but.

  4. avatar jalford says:

    The best example he can think of is Nicole Parra?

  5. avatar tegrat says:

    Beware Republicans entreaties for “campaign finance reform”. This fails the smell test.

  6. avatar chrisfinnie says:

    This isn’t a spoof by Dr. Hackenflack is it? Just wondering?

  7. avatar CBernstien says:

    The arguments in support of the ballot measure to abolish the death penalty are exaggerated at best and, in most cases, misleading and erroneous. Proposition 34 is being funded primarily by a wealthy, left-wing company out of Chicago, the ACLU, and similarly-oriented trust funds. It includes provisions that would only make our prisons less safe for both other prisoners and prison officials and significantly increase the costs to taxpayers due to life-time medical costs, the increased security required to coerce former death-row inmates to work, etc. The amount “saved” in order to help fund law enforcement is negligible and only for a short period of time. Bottom line, the “SAFE” Act is an attempt by those who are responsible for the high costs and lack of executions to now persuade voters to abandon it on those grounds. Obviously, these arguments would disappear if the death penalty was carried forth in accordance with the law. Get the facts at and supporting evidence at http://cadeathpenalty.webs.com and http://waiting4justice.org/.

  8. avatar Cat Burke says:

    I am Catherine Burke –
    Mother of a Murdered Child – AND – Victim of Violent Crime!
    I offer to each and every citizen, the true reason we should have the Death Penalty – PROTECTION!

    “Indeed, the decision that capital punishment may be the appropriate sanction in extreme cases is an expression of the community’s belief that certain crimes are themselves so grievous an affront to humanity that the only adequate response may be the penalty of death.”

    Protection is the only reason why we must vote NO on Proposition 34!
    In this election year what becomes MOST important is fixing our broken Justice System to actually uphold the VERDICT.

    In a Mass Murderous attack upon the Burke family while they lay sleeping, my 18-year-old daughter, Saskia Savana Burke, was brutally stabbed to death here in our home December 20, 2011… Her murderer, William Gary Simpson, has been arrested and charged with Saskia’s murder, 2 counts attempted murder, several counts of special circumstances including lying in wait.

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