SAN FRANCISCO — Her financially strapped campaign for governor boosted at least temporarily by the demise of California's political financing restrictions, Dianne Feinstein on Thursday tried to shield herself from Republican accusations that she is violating the spirit of the very reform measure she once supported.
She did so in a time-honored way, by launching a broadside at her opponent, Republican Pete Wilson, whom she strongly suggested had traded favors to build up his massive campaign war chest.
This came as Feinstein disclosed she had received $150,000 in campaign contributions Wednesday from California Highway Patrol officers. Before the funding restrictions were lifted, the officers' labor group would have been limited to a $5,000 donation.
Feinstein said the only way she can compete with an incumbent such as Wilson is to accept the bulk donations that have come to her campaign since a federal court judge Tuesday overturned Proposition 73, a voter-approved measure that placed a $1,000-per-person limit on campaign contributions. The ruling, which also limited contributions from large committees to $5,000, is being appealed.
Because of his position as an incumbent U.S. senator, Feinstein said, it is easier for Wilson to obtain contributions from groups with a special interest in federal legislation.
"Anybody that takes on a United States senator--(a challenger) who's not an incumbent, who's a private citizen, isn't doing favors for anyone--doesn't have the networks of people to be able to contribute," Feinstein told several hundred members of the Commonwealth Club here.
Appearing in Los Angeles to accept the endorsement of prosecuting attorneys Thursday morning, Wilson repeated his call for Feinstein to abide by the spirit of the $1,000 limit, but said in effect that if she violated it, he would too. Wilson added, however, that in no case would he take so much money from any single source that it would suggest "that I was beholden to a contributor." He declined to say just how much that limit might be.
Wilson rejected the notion that his contributions had obligated him to any special interest. "I do not intend to do now what I have never done in my career, which is to take an inordinately large gift from a single contributor because the whole purpose of the campaign limits . . . is to give the people confidence that there is neither the fact nor the appearance of undue influence," he said.
Wilson also said that anyone who sought to take advantage of the court's decision while an appeal is pending would be flouting the will of the people. "They are saying to the public, 'To hell with your concern about special interests. It was legal for a brief moment and I'm going to take my chance, take my advantage,' " Wilson said.
The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals refused Thursday to grant a stay of the Proposition 73 ruling until after a hearing today before U.S. District Judge Lawrence K. Karlton, who issued the decision. If Karlton refuses to grant a stay, the appeals court will hold a hearing Tuesday in Pasadena to consider a renewed request by backers of the campaign measure.
Feinstein, making her first public appearance since a four-day, out-of-state fund-raising trip, made clear Thursday that she has no interest in sticking to limits that were severely curtailing her fund-raising ability.
Wilson, with a statewide contributors' list honed in two senate campaigns, has been collecting money at a rate twice that of Feinstein. While Wilson is believed to have millions in the bank for a fall television blitz, Feinstein's campaign has been living a hand-to-mouth existence. Updated financial reports are to be released by both campaigns next week.
Seemingly buoyed by the financial repercussions of the judge's decision, Feinstein told reporters at a press conference after her speech that she was "very proud" to have received the CHP officers' $150,000 contribution.
Feinstein's speech and her press conference offered her an opportunity to vent frustration at both Wilson and the state campaign reform law.
She called Wilson the "most prolific fund raiser in the history of American politics," a seeming exaggeration given the campaign histories of President Bush and former President Reagan, among others. Feinstein noted correctly that Wilson has been among the top Senate recipients of money from corporations, savings and loan officials and agriculture and chemical concerns.
"My opponent can raise $20 (million) to $30 million from wide networks of people all of whom want solicitous attention from their United States senator and from a man who, if he loses (the race for governor), will be in the United States Senate," she said.
"Is that right?" she asked. "Is that the kind of politics we want?"
Asked later whether she meant to imply that Wilson had traded votes for contributions, Feinstein replied, "I just said what I thought the facts were in this case."