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California and the West

Campaign Money Machine Hits High Gear

Politics: Judge's dismissal of Proposition 208 touched off a frenzy of fund-raising by politicians no longer constrained by the initiative's limits.

March 16, 1998|DAN MORAIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO — Two months after a judge struck down voter-imposed fund-raising restrictions, politicians are finding that raising money is like riding a bike. They never forget how.

In restaurants and cafes around the Capitol, campaign money starts flowing over sweet rolls, coffee and lukewarm bacon at morning fund-raisers, and continues over cocktails and greasy finger-food on into the dinner hour.

From wannabe Assembly members to candidates for governor, politicians are raising money full time. The price of admission to a fund-raiser held by a back-bench Assembly member is typically $500; state Senate candidates charge more like $1,000.

For donors who want to be part of the select few with more ready access to the legislative leaders, the price gets steep--$25,000. Statewide candidates talk of the need to raise six- and seven-figure sums.

It's as if voters never approved Proposition 208, the 1996 initiative that sought to restrict fund-raising and campaign spending.

The initiative was in effect last year, putting a lid on large-scale money raising. But in January, a federal judge struck down the measure, concluding that it violated the 1st Amendment rights of candidates and political parties. So with the clamps now off, candidates are making up for lost time.

"Candidates had a dry year, so they're forced to speed things up," said Dave Low of the California School Employees Assn.

In 1996, legislative candidates spent about $50 million. Chances are, campaigns won't cost any less in 1998, despite last year's fund-raising blackout.

"The need to raise money for an effective campaign hasn't changed," said Assembly Republican Leader Bill Leonard (R-San Bernardino), who raised $127,000 at a single lunch in Sacramento last month. "It has compressed the time available to raise the money."

With hotly contested Assembly races expected to cost each side $1 million, Leonard plans to raise at least $5 million to help elect Republicans to the Assembly. Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa (D-Los Angeles) will match that sum to elect Democrats.

The same is true in the state Senate, though because the districts are twice as large as Assembly districts, contested races can cost $2 million per side each.

"If you don't have $1 million [to spend in contested races] you probably shouldn't try. Isn't that ridiculous?" Senate Republican Leader Rob Hurtt (R-Garden Grove) said.

The stakes are high. Whichever party gains a majority in the 80-seat Assembly and 40-seat Senate will shape state policy. The majority party controls which bills get hearings, and which die, as well as spoils such as choice offices.

So candidates spend long hours dialing donors, urging them to attend fund-raisers. The events are part of the daily Capitol routine, Monday through Thursday.

Take a typical midweek day, Feb. 25, a Wednesday. In a two-block radius of the Capitol, there were six fund-raisers. A seventh was a short cab ride away.

By 9 a.m., enterprising lobbyists could have gone to five events, and consumed enough coffee, muffins and slices of honeydew to have kept them buzzing until well into the afternoon. A client would have been $3,000 poorer.

The first stop would have been a $500-per-ticket breakfast at a restaurant just east of the Capitol for Marco Firebaugh. Firebaugh, a 31-year-old graduate of UCLA's law school, is running for an Assembly seat now held by Martha M. Escutia (D-Bell), who is seeking a Senate seat. He has the support of several incumbents, including Escutia. Villaraigosa sent lobbyists a letter urging that they give to Firebaugh.

Firebaugh raised $8,000 at the event. That wasn't much, but he wasn't upset; it was his first Sacramento event, and he's not even in office. He and Escutia point out that, like many lawmakers from urban districts, they have a hard time raising money back home.

"I just don't get money from my district. It's like squeezing blood from a turnip," Escutia said. In Sacramento, by contrast, she can pull in $30,000 or $40,000 from Capitol insiders at a single fund-raiser.

From the get-to-know-Firebaugh session, a lobbyist could have walked to a breakfast hosted by Sen. Hilda Solis (D-El Monte), at $1,000 a pop, and then to separate $500-a-ticket breakfasts for Assemblymen Tony Cardenas (D-Sylmar), Steve Baldwin (R-El Cajon) and Gary Miller (R-Diamond Bar).

That evening, there were cocktails with Sen. John Lewis (R-Orange) for $1,000. From there, it was a short cab ride to Villaraigosa's fund-raiser, held on the eve of his swearing-in as speaker.

The price of admission started at $1,000. For $10,000, a donor could become what Villaraigosa called a "Friend of the Majority." For $25,000, a donor would become part of the vaunted "Majority Finance Cabinet." A lobbyist derided the titles as little more than "ego-massagers" for big-time donors.

Some Call Events 'Dull'

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