At this, the end of another political season, I expected to find Bill Mitchell in a glum mood. After all, Mitchell's passion is campaign finance reform, and he's just watched another season come and go under the old rules.
Not only that, but the campaign season is lumbering to the finish line with fresh allegations of improper lobbying of the White House by moneyed interests and, almost worse, by Mitchell's reckoning, the empty rhetoric of politicians in both parties acting as if they're dying for reform. The only good news in California is that there wasn't a wildly exorbitant spending binge for a U.S. Senate seat--as in 1994--but only because no seat was up this year.
But rather than being downcast, Mitchell, the chairman of Orange County Common Cause, was upbeat.
Call him next Wednesday, he said, and he might be positively ecstatic.
That's what having a proposition on next Tuesday's ballot does for his spirits.
Common Cause is pushing Prop. 208, which it is sponsoring with the League of Women Voters, the American Assn. of Retired Persons and United We Stand America. Proposition 208 would limit contributions to either $250 or $500 from corporations, individuals or political action committees, depending on the race. It would do other things, like prohibit lobbyist contributions and limit to $25,000 the amount a person or organization could give in all California races over a two-year period.
In a state where there are no limits at all, that would be a significant shake-up.
"I think campaign reform is inevitable," Mitchell said in his Santa Ana office Thursday, "because since I've been involved in Common Cause [six years], many more people are willing to volunteer for it and many more people are conversant on the subject than when I started."
Perhaps because it's a mouthful, campaign-finance reform often doesn't resonate with people. Or, they've become so cynical about the lack of reform that they tune out.
"There is nothing sexy about campaign finance reform, and nothing simple about it," Mitchell said. "I speak to groups about it, and I feel sometimes like the auto mechanic talking about transmission repair to the ladies club. Once you get past the minimal description and get into the details, minds are turning off and they're thinking about vacations. The average person can't relate to it, because they don't give money [in large amounts] and play the game."
Yet, Mitchell said, voters tend to vote for reform. California voters passed two measures in 1988, but one of them, Proposition 73, was ruled unconstitutional and that, in effect, voided the other measure, Proposition 68, too.
Again this year, two reform measures are on the ballot--Propositions 208 and 212. Common Cause is hoping voters favor 208.
Given that virtually no campaign-finance reform has been enacted for 20 years, you wonder why Mitchell is hopeful. It's easier to understand why he's bummed about campaign spending.
"There has been an incredible increase in the amount of money spent in the last 20 years," he said, "far outstripping inflation."
Earlier this year, a newsletter published by Common Cause asserted that the amount of money raised by state legislators and other statewide officeholders in California had grown from $15 million in 1976 to $196 million in 1994.
And where has all the money gone? To what Mitchell calls the "professionalization" of politics. "It's a modern-day phenomenon--it didn't exist in the 1970s--and it has made politics more expensive. It's moved from barbecues and kaffeeklatsches to telemarketing and direct mail."
Opponents argue that limiting contributions is an unconstitutional limit on freedom of expression, and Mitchell conceded a court challenge might ensue, if voters approve the initiative. And while acknowledging that spending limits might favor incumbents early on, Mitchell said reform is worth a try.
"The point is that everybody talks about it, but nothing ever happens. We talked about it in 1992, in 1994, and you saw the president and Newt Gingrich shake hands on it. Yet nothing happens. Look at what a huge issue it is in this presidential campaign."
Which is exactly why I expected him to be depressed this late with a November election upon us.
"Most of the time, we feel like the lost tribe," Mitchell joked, "but the week before the election, we are hopeful the voters will act responsibly and we'll wake up on Wednesday and have accomplished something that will make a huge difference."
Dana Parsons' column appears Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. Readers may reach Parsons by writing to him at the Times Orange County Edition, 1375 Sunflower Ave., Costa Mesa, CA 92626, or calling (714) 966-7821.