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California and the West

Power PAC Steps Out of Spotlight

Politics: Campaign limits and bad press have taken its toll on big-spending group. Some GOP conservatives worry about its fate.

June 15, 1997|ERIC BAILEY and PETER M. WARREN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

For the better part of the 1990s, the conservative California Independent Business PAC was among the most free-spending political outfits in the Golden State.

But these days, this GOP grizzly is in hibernation.

Phone calls to the political action committee, a klatch of four wealthy families led by Orange County philanthropist Howard Ahmanson, now land in the Azusa home of its part-time secretary, her two cockatiels squawking in the background.

The group's Pasadena office, once a year-round Republican nerve center, is shuttered. Its three full-time staffers and myriad political gofers are pared down to a lone secretary catching stray calls.

Those are telling changes for a group that was a dominant player in state politics, giving more than $9 million in the last five years to conservative candidates and causes. In 1994, that money helped Republicans seize the Assembly for the first time in a quarter-century.

"They were the paradigm of big money coming into the process to influence elections," said Tony Miller, a Democratic campaign reform activist and former acting secretary of state. "They fueled the engine that resulted in the Republican takeover."

Lately the news has been bad for the group. It has been buffeted by the state's new campaign contribution law and brushed by bad press about a surreptitious GOP effort to influence a pivotal 1995 special recall election in Orange County to replace Assemblywoman Doris Allen.

Some conservatives worry that the PAC won't reemerge as a force unless the courts strike down Proposition 208, imposed in November by voters, which caps contributions to political groups at $500.

They also say the group's biggest donors--Ahmanson and his wife, Roberta--seem burned out by the bad publicity linked to the PAC.

"I'm concerned," said Assemblyman Steve Baldwin, an El Cajon Republican who got more than $200,000 from the group to help him capture his seat in 1994. "These guys seem to be taking themselves out of the ballgame."

Others say it is hardly so dire, that the group may well reemerge in a new form to help the conservative cause.

"Any suggestion that they're undergoing some unique or special transition might be a little bit premature," said Wayne Johnson, a Sacramento political consultant who has run several campaigns backed by the group.

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As the California Independent Business PAC group slumbers, political groups run by teachers, doctors and trial lawyers are gearing up for 1998. They too face strict limits on donations they can collect, but should be able to overcome the restrictions by having their myriad members make direct donations.

The conservative group can't pull such sleight of hand. Founded by savings and loan heir Ahmanson and Orange County manufacturer Rob Hurtt, who used his own wealth to campaign for and capture a state Senate seat in 1993, the PAC has always been composed of a handful of wealthy men and their wives.

What it lacked in membership it made up with money. Last year, it contributed $2.6 million to political campaigns in the state. The mighty California Teachers Assn., which has 269,000 members and traditionally gives more than any other group, donated $2.7 million.

With such largess, the Independent Business PAC has virtually rebuilt the Statehouse's Republican caucus in its own image.

Using the fiscally strict practices of the business world, it kept a tight grip on how money was spent and carefully screened candidates, yielding a crop that was mostly white, male, conservative and Christian.

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While the Independent Business PAC espoused traditional family values, it sometimes practiced politics with bare knuckles.

Its members weren't shy about using stealth campaign tactics if necessary. Most notable was the group's efforts in last year's Republican primary to vault the nephew of member Ed Atsinger, a Christian radio magnate, to victory over maverick GOP Assemblyman Brian Setencich for a Fresno seat.

Former employees are now coming forward to describe tactics they say the group used on occasion. They tell tales of masquerading as Democrats to infiltrate campaigns and combing trash cans--they dubbed it "Dumpster diving"--to gather intelligence on foes.

"What bothers me most about them is they try to portray themselves as these upstanding Christians and yet they will stoop to the most unethical means," said Mark Jackson, Setencich's former chief of staff. "It is anything to win, and it is wrong."

None of the PAC's current members--Ahmanson, Atsinger, dirt bike magazine publisher Roland Hinz and manufacturer Rich Riddle--returned calls for comment. Their attorney also declined to comment.

But they have numerous defenders among the Republican elite.

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