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Dana's Heir Apparent Joins Titans of Fund Raising

Politics: Backing of retiring supervisor boosts Donald Knabe. So does L.A. County's lack of donation limits.

February 12, 1996|JEFFREY L. RABIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Although he's simply an administrative aide largely out of public view, Donald Knabe is drawing the sort of fast and furious contributions that normally are reserved for sitting members of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors.

Individuals, labor unions and special interests that do business with the nation's largest county government pumped over $1 million in the past year into Knabe's campaign to replace his boss, retiring Supervisor Deane Dana.

With the March 26 primary election for Dana's open seat six weeks away, Knabe is the next best thing to an incumbent--an heir apparent--in the eyes of the political givers whose contributions fuel campaigns for county offices.

And while challengers find it tough to raise funds, incumbent county officeholders and their designated successors have a direct pipeline to campaign cash.

From his post as Dana's chief deputy, Knabe raised more than any other county candidate or officeholder. His biggest contribution--$40,000--came from the county probation officers union.

Knabe's list of those giving $5,000 or more runs for pages.

Such routine $5,000 donations to county candidates are five times larger than any that can be made to Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan and 10 times what can be given to City Council candidates in most cases.

And they're five times the maximum amount any individual can give to a candidate for president of the United States or a member of the U.S. Senate or House of Representatives.

Unlike many large California cities--including Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Diego--that have limited campaign contributions, there is no limit to what can be given candidates for Los Angeles County supervisor, district attorney, sheriff or assessor.

"Los Angeles County is a dinosaur when it comes to campaign finance reform," said Bob Stern, co-director of the private California Commission on Campaign Financing.

The county's wide-open campaign finance system is an entrenched political way of life that works well for incumbents. And as a result, there is almost no appetite for reform at the county--despite the fact that a majority of the members of the Board of Supervisors had campaigned on that theme when they initially sought election.

In most races, the major donors are the same: developers, labor unions, lobbyists, trash haulers, dump site operators, oil companies, Metro Rail contractors, ambulance companies, parking lot operators, law firms and others that depend on the county for business.

A Times review of thousands of pages of campaign contribution reports shows that while 1995 may have been the toughest year in county history, it didn't dampen the flow of campaign dollars.

Unopposed Races

Although she has no opponent and is assured of reelection next month, Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke nonetheless raised $760,428 last year and plans to continue soliciting contributions during the next four years.

Board Chairman Mike Antonovich, who faces an unknown challenger and is all but guaranteed a fifth term, pulled in an estimated $500,000 during a gala fund-raiser at the Bonaventure Hotel one night last week. It is an amount that few politicians nationally can draw in an evening--and comes on top of the $574,460 that Antonovich raised last year.

Burke and Antonovich have no real competition because their campaign money is so daunting, most challengers cannot hope to compete. In fact, the last time a sitting supervisor was ousted from office was in 1980, when Antonovich was elected over Supervisor Baxter Ward--but only with the financial backing of then Supervisor Pete Schabarum.

The largest campaign contribution to a county official last year did not go to the powerful supervisors. Instead, it went to Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti, who is seeking reelection to a second term against a field of five challengers.

Clothing designer and Guess? founder Georges Marciano sent the county's top prosecutor $50,000 last April. That brings to $220,000 the amount that Marciano and Guess? have given to Garcetti in the past four years, a donation so large that it would rank as one of the biggest even in California, which has no limits on donations to legislative and statewide races such as governor and attorney general.

Marciano did not respond to requests for comment on why he so strongly supports the district attorney's campaign.

Both Garcetti and the supervisors defend the fund raising as essential because their districts are enormous. Each supervisor represents about 1.9 million people, three times more than a member of Congress. And the district attorney, sheriff and assessor run at large, in a county with more than 9 million people.

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