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California Elections : THE FINANCES : If Money Greases Politics, California Is Well-Tuned State

May 18, 1986|BOB SECTER | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Rep. Tony Coelho (D-Merced) spent $1,328 to buy some wine goblets, while Rep. Gene Chappie (R-Chico) plunked down $248.88 for a hog and $478.68 for a pair of lambs. Richmond Democrat George Miller, meanwhile, paid $297.09 for gas to blow up dinner balloons, and Newport Beach Republican Robert E. Badham shelled out $6,000 for a used Cadillac.

Money is the grease that lubricates the machinery of politics, and campaign records on file at the Federal Election Commission show that California congressmen keep their machines well-oiled. Vast amounts of cash pass through their campaign treasuries even in non-election years, much of it spent on offbeat items that seem far removed from the business of getting into office and holding on to it.

From the beginning of 1985 through last March, records show, campaign committees for the state's 45 congressmen have raked in a whopping $7.65 million in contributions--which averages more than $170,000 apiece to run their campaigns, giving incumbents a large leg up on any challengers. And fund-raising for all candidates, incumbents and challengers alike, can only be expected to accelerate in the days before the June 3 primary and November general election.

From Rent to Liquor

During that same 15-month period, campaign committees of delegation members spent a total of $5.9 million--an average of $131,143 apiece--on everything from office rent, postage and polls to liquor, baby sitters and dry cleaning.

The averages are deceiving, however, as can be seen in a comparison of Democrats Leon E. Panetta of Monterey and Ronald V. Dellums of Oakland, both of whom have firm holds on their congressional seats:

Panetta raised only $16,712 during the 15 months and spent $27,145, tapping excess funds from previous campaigns. On the other hand, Dellums--Congress' foremost torchbearer for the far left--tapped contributors for more than $615,000 and spent $538,277, far outstripping any other California House member in both categories.

Dellums spends much of his money to get money. Unlike many colleagues who host big fund-raising parties or routinely draw large gifts from special-interest groups, Dellums derives the bulk of his campaign income from sophisticated, nationwide direct-mail solicitations sent to names on a select list of 28,000 activists from anti-nuclear, civil rights and other so-called "progressive" movements.

Big Returns, Overhead

The cash returns from such a technique are large, but so is the overhead. In the first three months of this year alone, records show, Dellums raised $220,856 but spent $191,609--most of it on expenses associated with getting out pleas for money. Nearly $144,000 went to one Berkeley-based direct-mail firm, Mal Warwick & Associates, whose owner is a member of Dellums' campaign committee.

Dellums acknowledges that his fund-raising methods are inefficient, but he argues that they free him from external pressures.

"There are two ways to raise money," he says. "You can get a lot from a few people or a little from a lot of people. . . . This gives me a broad enough base so I can feel free to be a progressive, and I don't have to answer to anyone's tune."

However, unlike Dellums, some lawmakers collect a lot but spend very little, wrapping themselves in a kind of green protective armor of cash that could scare off potential challengers.

Republican Rep. David Dreier of La Verne, who has a safe San Gabriel Valley seat, is sitting on a cash hoard of more than $870,000, second in the entire House only to Majority Leader Jim Wright (D-Tex.). "As a Boy Scout, I was always taught to be prepared," Dreier said.

Incumbent Cash

Because Democratic map makers gerrymandered district lines when they were last redrawn in 1982, most incumbents in the state have little trouble getting reelected. Yet, at the end of March, 10 of them had war chests of more than $200,000.

One of them is Rep. Mel Levine (D-Santa Monica), who spent very little on his 1984 reelection bid and got a last-minute scare from a Republican challenger backed heavily by fundamentalist religious groups. This time around, Levine has built his campaign account up to $517,875, much of it pledged at one huge fund-raising event last year.

"Part of the reason to raise it is so you don't have to spend it," confessed Bill Andresen, Levine's administrative assistant. "It's kind of like nuclear weapons. You build them so you never have to use them. It's deterrence. You get the message across to potential opponents that it's going to be very expensive."

Oddly, the few incumbents who analysts believe could face stiff challenges in November have relatively puny bank accounts. Rep. Robert K. Dornan (R-Garden Grove), outspoken advocate of right-wing causes, had raised $457,046 in the 15 months that ended March 31, but he spent $452,107 and showed cash on hand of only $28,846.

Shaky Ground

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