By Dan Walters | CALmatters Columnist
Jesse Unruh, the legendary speaker of the state Assembly during the 1960s, was fond of pithy quips, and one of his more enduring is that “money is the mother’s milk of politics.”
Before Unruh became the Assembly’s leader in 1961, the financing of legislative campaigns was largely controlled by Capitol lobbyists, who adhered to the “select and elect” philosophy of the lobbying trade’s most famous — or infamous — practitioner, Artie Samish.
Unruh maintained Samish’s process of selecting candidates for the Assembly, but sought, successfully, to transfer it into his hands.
For the next three-plus decades, legislative leaders – particularly long-time Assembly Speaker Willie Brown — leveraged their power over legislation to compel special interest groups to funnel money through their hands. Thus, they wielded almost hegemonic control over which Democrats could aspire to legislative careers. Brown could boast, accurately, of being the “Ayatollah of the Legislature.”
The system broke down in the 1990s after voters passed legislative term limits. Long-term legislative and leadership careers became obsolete and eventually, interest groups and their lobbyists filled the power vacuum, resuming a Samish-like role of grooming and financing candidates.
Political reform groups such as Common Cause reacted by sponsoring a 1996 ballot measure, Proposition 208, that imposed tight limits on campaign contributions.
The political professionals didn’t like it for obvious reasons and challenged it in court. And as the legal battle was being waged, the Legislature, with little warning, placed another measure, Proposition 34, on the 2000 ballot to succeed it.
It purported to be a reform, but actually made it easier for big money to flow indirectly into campaigns via “independent expenditures” and through political parties, thus protecting candidates from accountability for its source.
As I observed in a 2010 Sacramento Bee column, “ …laundering campaign money to disguise its source is exactly what state legislators intended when they wrote Proposition 34 a decade ago.”
Term limits were modified a few years ago, and one effect is that legislative leaders, such as current Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon and Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins, can hold their offices longer.
They clearly aspire to re-establish the centralized legislative leadership that had been eroded by term limits, and to do so, they want bigger roles in amassing and dispensing campaign funds to their favored legislators and candidates, ala Unruh and Brown.
A late-blooming bill, Assembly Bill 84, would do exactly that, giving leadership campaign organizations the same status as political parties, and thus allowing them to raise and spend much more money.
Political reform groups oppose it, of course. “AB 84 would be the biggest rollback of California’s campaign finance law in at least a decade,” Nicolas Heidorn of California Common Cause told the Senate Elections and Constitutional Amendments Committee before it voted to approve the measure last week.
Interestingly, however, AB 84 also draws opposition from the California Democratic Party even though Rendon and Atkins are high-ranking leaders of the party, apparently because it would erode the party’s powerful role in financing campaigns provided by Proposition 34.
“There’s too much money in politics. This bill is a step backward. California politics simply does not need more opportunities for big checks to go to campaigns,” Daraka Larimore-Hall, Democratic Party vice chairman, told the committee.
If nothing else, the split is another indication that despite its political dominance of California — or perhaps because of it — the party is fragmenting into sub-factions and additional evidence that money is, indeed, the mother’s milk of political power.
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