SACRAMENTO — With their millions in campaign spending, few Californians have played a bigger role in turning the state Legislature to the right than two Orange County millionaires--conservative Christian Howard F. Ahmanson Jr. and his ally in politics, Senate Republican Leader Rob Hurtt.
Democrats denounce their campaign donations. Advocates of campaign spending limits decry the sway their money has on elections.
But far more quietly, away from the headlines that large political contributions attract, the two millionaires have taken a parallel track, spreading their influence still further by spending millions on conservative think tanks and tax-exempt lobby groups that advance their goals.
Increasingly, these organizations incubate and shape Republican thought in Sacramento, and frame public debate on issues from taxes and environmental law to gay rights, abortion, school vouchers and affirmative action.
Republican lawmakers, many of whom won office with help from Hurtt's and Ahmanson's money, often look to these groups for recommendations about positions to take, even what legislation to carry. Lawmakers tap the groups for staff and advisors, and, in revolving door fashion, the think tanks provide jobs for former legislative staffers and out-of-work politicians.
"They're developing the ideas, and we're trying to put bills through [the Legislature] based on those ideas," Hurtt (R-Garden Grove) said in an interview.
In the 1990s, Hurtt and Ahmanson have spent a combined $7.1 million on state campaigns, making them among the largest donors in state politics. Their money has helped elect 26 of 41 Assembly Republicans and seven of 16 Senate Republicans.
Unlike campaign spending, which by law must be publicly disclosed, there is no requirement that donations to the private groups be reported. That's why Ahmanson's and Hurtt's spending on policy institutes has gone largely unnoticed.
But since entering the political arena less than a decade ago, Ahmanson has spent more than $3.1 million and Hurtt at least $1.3 million on think tanks and conservative lobbying groups, interviews and tax records of the groups show.
"Hurtt's money and Ahmanson's play an agenda-setting role," said author Sara Diamond, a Berkeley sociologist who writes extensively about conservative Christians. "This is really the genius of the New Right. You don't wait for an election to come around. A better way to influence policy is to finance think tanks. They create interest and a demand" in issues.
Some think tanks that receive money from Ahmanson and, to a lesser extent, Hurtt, have a libertarian bent and advocate free-market prescriptions for society's ills. Others are Bible-based, and battle for "traditional family values." For the most part, they produce writings light on statistical proof and heavy on opinion, which makes some people question the legitimacy of their credentials as researchers.
"Many of these organizations are adversarial in nature, explicitly so," said Jess Cook of the research-oriented Rand Corp. of Santa Monica, which receives no money from Ahmanson or Hurtt. "That's the growth sector in the think tank industry in recent years. They're not doing fact-based research. They're advocating a certain point of view."
One of the biggest beneficiaries of Hurtt's and Ahmanson's largess is the Christian-based Capitol Resource Institute, which they founded in 1987 to organize abortion foes in Sacramento. Some of its newest goals: pushing a measure to deny recognition of same-sex marriage and junking the state's no-fault divorce law, making it harder to dissolve a marriage.
These policy institutes try to be at the fore of the hottest issues in state politics--attacking welfare, affirmative action, public schools, public employee unions, taxes, environmental law. Opposition to abortion and gay rights is a recurrent theme.
"I would not propose we have policemen battering down people's doors to see what they're doing in the bedroom," said Larry Arnn, president of the Claremont Institute, which received $185,000 from Ahmanson last year and lesser sums from Hurtt. "But I wouldn't have [gay] rights recognized, because I don't think they are rights. They fit into a different class than protections for blacks and women. We think it's wrong. It's a violation of natural law."
The groups funded by Hurtt and Ahmanson are nonprofit and exempt from income taxes. In exchange for tax breaks, they must limit their lobbying. But through their position papers, guest columns in newspapers, radio broadcasts and newsletters, their reach extends from the grass roots to the governor's corner office.
"We have to make the constituency aware of what's going on on a timely basis. The key there is timely," Hurtt said. "It's a total education. If people want to get involved, they let them know, 'Here's how you can do it.' "