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Legislative Aides' Campaign Role Growing, Critics Say : Political Troops Often on State Payrolls

May 18, 1987|PAUL JACOBS | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — When soldiers are needed in political wars--as was the case in a heavily bankrolled state Senate election last week--the Legislature can call up small armies of Democratic and Republican militia, drawn from the 2,300 legislative employees whose salaries are paid by taxpayers.

The troops come out of the lawmakers' Capitol and district offices, where they have no job security and their livelihoods depend on helping make sure that their bosses wind up on the winning side of election campaigns, especially their own.

In the latest example, hundreds of legislative employees converged on Southern California--by bus, by car, by chartered plane--in a critical special election last Tuesday to get out the vote. Depending on the party loyalties of their bosses in Sacramento, they worked either for Norwalk Democrat Cecil N. Green, the underdog winner, or for Republican Assemblyman Wayne Grisham of Norwalk, whose loss led to a shake-up of GOP Senate leadership.

Neither side will say exactly how many legislative staffers actually flocked to the district. Republicans acknowledge close to 100 on their side. Democrats talk of between 150 and 200 on theirs. Some observers say the real figures are much higher.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Friday May 29, 1987 Home Edition Part 1 Page 2 Column 1 Metro Desk 2 inches; 66 words Type of Material: Correction
A May 18 story on the use of legislative employees in political campaigns overstated the total number of workers on the Legislature's payroll because of an error in tallying state Senate workers. The correct total figure, based on April, 1987, payroll lists for all legislative employees, is 2,142 rather than the 2,292 reported. Instead of 1,018 Senate employees, the figure should have been 868--more than double the 393 in 1969, rather than nearly triple as reported.

At a recent cocktail reception for lawmakers and staff members in Sacramento, one legislative employee commented to a reporter, "There's not a staff person in this room who's not involved in the 33rd (Senate District race)."

Legislators have always placed political troops on their office staffs--people paid with state funds who move easily between the worlds of campaign strategy and legislative business. This is a great advantage for incumbents over their reelection challengers, who for the most part have no taxpayer-financed staffs to draw from and must depend solely on private contributions to pay aides.

As long as the legislative staff members take unpaid leaves of absence from their state jobs or do campaigning after hours, on weekends or on vacation time, their politicking is legal. But it is difficult to prove whether legislative employees have, in fact, taken leave when they work on campaigns, particularly in the Senate, which has instituted a policy of destroying leave and vacation records once an outside audit is completed each year.

Some critics, including former legislative leaders, contend that the number of political operatives on the Legislature's growing payroll is out of control and is a waste of taxpayers' money. They also complain that the dividing line between staff experts, knowledgeable in specialized areas of government, and political aides has become blurred as leaders in both parties become more concerned about winning elections.

Legislators "have too much staff and too much of it is purely partisan in nature," said former Assembly Speaker Robert T. Monagan, a Republican who now is chairman of the state World Trade Commission. "It's completely out of hand."

Period of Rapid Growth

Legislative budgets and staffs have continued to grow at a rapid pace for two decades, a period when annual spending increased more than eight-fold--from $19 million in 1968 to $181 million planned for next year--more than half of it for staff salaries and benefits.

Since 1969, the size of the Senate staff has almost tripled from 393 to 1,018, according to figures provided by the Senate Rules Committee. Information from the Assembly Rules Committee shows 1,227 people on the Assembly payroll and an additional 47 employees who work for both houses. The Assembly Rules staff declined to provide past employment figures.

Legislative leaders say that the staff growth has merely kept pace with increases in the overall state budget.

A review by The Times of hundreds of legislative and campaign records, as well as interviews with a number of legislative employees, revealed that many turn up as foot soldiers in election wars. Most say they do so without coercion from their bosses, but some acknowledge that there is "pressure." Technically, participation in campaigns is optional, said a former legislative committee consultant who asked not to be identified, "but sometimes it didn't seem so optional."

A current legislative staffer said, "They (legislators) have ways of letting you know that it is a good idea to go down there, that you ought to take a day off and walk a precinct."

Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco) said, "There is no pressure to my knowledge by anyone." But he added that "there is a lot of solicitation"--staffers are asked to help but are not coerced into doing so.

When asked before Tuesday's special election how the Legislature would carry on its business with perhaps hundreds of staff members taking leave or vacation to help get out the vote in Southern California, Brown compared it to the opening day of the baseball season or the state fair: "I don't believe there will be any more absentees on Election Day here than any other normal day when there is a competing event."

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