SANTA ANA — Orange County's five supervisors, who have collected more than $4.7 million during their election and reelection bids, would have seen their war chests sliced by 20% if contribution limits being debated in the Hall of Administration had applied to their campaigns.
A computer analysis by The Times Orange County Edition shows that the supervisors collect most of their campaign funds from small donors, those who give a candidate less than $1,000 in any given election.
But the big contributors, whose donations would be curbed by the reform proposal unveiled last week, pumped significant sums into the candidacies of the five supervisors. They wield such strong influence that in at least one case--a 1986 supervisorial race that broke local spending records--large contributions may have played a crucial role in determining the outcome.
Still, even though experts agree that large contributions have bolstered supervisorial war chests and helped make board members almost unbeatable at the ballot box, campaign contribution limits such as the one proposed last week have their downside as well. Critics warn that challengers often need more money than incumbents to get name recognition, and they say that capping contributions could end up skewing the political environment in Orange County even further toward incumbents.
As a result, the reform proposal announced last week by former County Planning Commissioner Shirley L. Grindle, who helped author the county's 1978 campaign reform law, has stirred considerable debate. If adopted, the proposal would bar candidates for county office from accepting more than $1,000 from a single contributor during a four-year election cycle.
At the center of the debate over that proposal are the members of the Board of Supervisors, who raise large sums to get their message out but at the same time worry about the escalating cost of politics.
"With a limit and without a big source of PAC money, it could be that campaigns would not be as costly, more people would have to be reached to raise the money," said Supervisor Harriett M. Wieder, who tentatively supports the proposed reform and so far is the only board member to stake out a position on it. "We'd have to set our sights differently. We'd have to work harder."
In fact, The Times computer analysis indicates that if Wieder and her colleagues had labored for the past 13 years under the $1,000 limit rather than under the county's existing campaign law, it would have cost them a significant chunk of their political money. Combined, the five board members received at least $980,000 from contributors who topped the $1,000-per-election mark.
That comes to about 20% of all the money that the current supervisors have raised during their county government careers.
But while all five supervisors have benefited from large contributions, some have relied on big money more heavily than others.
At the low end of the scale, Board Chairman Gaddi H. Vasquez has raised almost all of his campaign money in small amounts--his average contribution is less than $400. Supervisors Thomas F. Riley and Roger R. Stanton also turn mostly to the small donor, collecting nearly 90% of their money from individuals and companies who give less than $1,000 per election.
Wieder, who faced a tough reelection campaign last year, has depended more heavily on large contributors. She has received about 20% of her campaign money from sources who contributed more than $1,000 per election.
And Supervisor Don R. Roth--largely because of a freewheeling, enormously expensive race for an open seat on the board in 1986--leads his colleagues in expensive fund raising: More than 30% of his campaign war chest, or about $411,000, would never have reached him under a $1,000-per-person, per-election cap.
But while many observers say they would prefer cheaper campaigns, scaling back fund raising through contribution limits is a complicated business.
Opponents of the caps complain that limiting contributions will freeze out challengers, denying them the money they need to reach voters. That makes campaigns less fair and discourages good candidates from running, they say.
"Campaign contribution limits always hurt challengers," said Harvey Englander, a Newport Beach political consultant. "People like Shirley Grindle don't ever seem to understand that."
Roth, in an interview last May, said that he, too, is skeptical of campaign reform, particularly contribution limits.
"Most of us incumbents like more and more tightening of the campaign laws," he said. "The more you tighten them, the more you make it so that the only people who raise any money are incumbents."
Reform supporters retort that incumbents already dominate the process, and that without some change, special interest groups will continue pouring hundreds of thousands of dollars into the war chests of incumbent supervisors and other county officeholders.