With polls showing Californians distrust their state government more than citizens of almost any other state, it’s high time legislators at least began taking small steps toward earning back some of the public faith they have squandered.
One way to start might be to adopt an idea advanced this spring by Democratic state Sen. Alex Padilla of Los Angeles, now a candidate to become secretary of state, California’s chief elections officer.
Even before the spring corruption indictments of fellow Democratic Sens. Ron Calderon of Montebello and Leland Yee of San Francisco, Padilla realized that one of the least seemly things lawmakers now do is raise campaign dollars right when they are deciding how to vote on important bills.
Even for the rare senator or Assembly member strong enough to heed the half-century-old advice of former Assembly Speaker Jesse Unruh (“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 a legislator then votes precisely the way big-money special interest donors want. It’s often a “which came first, the 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. Whichever, the practice stinks and 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. For sure, 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 the name-recognition that’s so important to political survival in a large state where most voters never lay eyes on a candidate.
But some of Sacramento’s most prolific fund-raisers say it wouldn’t change much if either fundraising during 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 fund-raising. You’d simply tell people on July 1 to mail their checks in on Sept. 1 or Sept. 15 or whenever the session ends. Everyone would know it was coming.”
Adds Democratic consultant Steve Maviglio, a onetime press secretary for ex-Gov. Gray Davis 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 check on them.
Still, it’s clear the public wants some kind of action to clean things up in Sacramento, where almost 3 million Californians today languish with no Senate representation at all because their convicted or indicted representatives are suspended while trying to fight off corruption and perjury charges against them.
So why not start with a small step like Padilla’s proposal? The one thing it would do is keep legislators from staging fund-raising events during the times they cast their most important votes. It is conceivable that not having to confront their big donors might make it a little easier for them to get back to basics, and actually vote their consciences or their constituents’ best interests.
Doesn’t sound like much, but it could at least lend a little more of the appearance of propriety to a polluted political environment. That’s better than doing no cleanup at all, which is what has happened so far amid all the pious talk of regaining public confidence.