The party had all the trappings of a society benefit. The trendy Scratch restaurant on Main Street in Santa Monica was the setting. More than 500 business and community leaders were guests. And Wolfgang Puck and other celebrity chefs, who prepared specialties such as oysters with caviar, boiled crawfish and flourless fudge cake, were the draw.
At $100 a ticket, the party netted more than $50,000. Not an impressive amount on the Westside, where fund-raising is almost an industry. More remarkable was the beneficiary--a candidate for reelection to a local city council seat--and the fact his election was more than a year away.
Santa Monica City Councilman William Jennings said Puck and the other chefs readily volunteered their time and food for his September fund-raiser. The money will go to pay for the growing cost of advertising, direct mail and other campaign expenses.
"The idea was to have something out of the ordinary," Jennings said, "and it worked out phenomenally well. Some people might say this is overkill, but running a campaign on the Westside is expensive."
Jennings is one of several Westside politicians collecting money for races that are still one to three years away. The politicians say that major campaign fund-raisers here, most of which are held at hotels, clubs and restaurants, have netted more than $1 million this year. And efforts are expected to intensify as next year's state and local elections approach.
Politicians say the Westside represents a promised land of affluence, awareness and generosity. They frequently enlist the support of celebrities living in the area, pointing out that some people are more likely to contribute if they have the chance to spend an evening sitting next to Jane Fonda or sampling the creations of celebrity chefs. Celebrities, for their part, say they are happy to contribute time and money to causes they support.
"We are a big part of the community, so it's a good thing for us to help these people," Puck said. "If we don't work together, nothing gets done."
With the cost of political races escalating, however, some political analysts are critical of off-year fund-raising, calling it excessive and unfair to newcomers. At the statewide level, the Fair Political Practices Commission said last week that some non-election-year contributions constitute an attempt to influence pending legislation. It has called for a $250-limit on individual non-election-year contributions to any state legislator. Such contributions now are unlimited.
Reform advocates are not optimistic about the chances of any kind of recommendation limiting financing going anywhere. Representatives from several areas of government, including Westside-area city councils, the county Board of Supervisors and the state Assembly and Senate, argue that solicitations are necessary to wipe out debts and replenish campaign treasuries. And despite reform efforts, politicians say the number of fund-raisers is growing and the money is flowing.
Afraid of Consequences
"It's been increasing for years," said Assemblyman Tom Hayden (D-Santa Monica). "I attend or contribute money to 25 or 30 fund-raisers a year. If you look at the big picture, you find that people are turning out in larger numbers and the candidates are raising more money. I think it's because everyone fears what the consequences would be if they quit."
Hayden, who spent a record $2 million on his 1982 campaign, raised $120,000 at a recent Century City dinner. Nearly half of Assemblyman Gray Davis' (D-Los Angeles) $1 million-campaign chest came from a Beverly Hills dinner last spring. Assemblyman Burt Margolin (D-Los Angeles) realized about $100,000 from a benefit in May. And Assemblywoman Gwen Moore (D-Los Angeles) raised $20,000 at a recent California Yacht Club dinner in Marina del Rey.
State Sen Gary K. Hart (D-Santa Barbara), whose district includes Malibu, raised about $250,000 in 1985, according to aides. State Sen. David A. Roberti (D-Los Angeles) raised $250,000 and state Sen. Herschel Rosenthal (D-Los Angeles) received $150,000 from off-year fund-raisers.
Robert M. Stern, general counsel for the California Commission on Campaign Financing, a nonprofit organization lobbying for campaign-spending reform, said most politicians feel pressured to stockpile funds.
"It's the arms race mentality," he said. "They're concerned that the other side will outspend them or out fund-raise them. So they build their war chests up to an incredible amount."
'I Am Flattered'
In the state Assembly, Davis has traditionally outpaced other fund-raisers except the Assembly leadership. He raised about $450,000 at his annual dinner in Beverly Hills in May. Although his district includes parts of the San Fernando Valley, Davis said most of his financial support comes from the Westside.