Even to those familiar with the relentless fund-raising prowess of Gray Davis, the governor's campaign finance report filed this week was an eye-opener. The Democratic chief executive collected more than $6 million during the first six months of the year. With money left over from last fall, Davis had $8.6 million in his reelection fund, more than three years before the election occurs.
That is seven times as much as was raised by Davis' predecessor during a comparable period. It is no surprise that talk has begun anew about the need for some sort of campaign finance reform in California.
Contributors' seemingly endless access to the governor and legislators looks bad, no matter what the reality. Critics' hackles were particularly raised by one recent contributor event that brought Davis and health company executives together a few days before the governor asked the Legislature to slow the flow of health reform bills. There is no suggestion that Davis is doing anything illegal. He's not. And Davis is not alone in the money game. In this era of term limits, fund-raising by state legislators has become an early-and-often necessity, in part because they're always looking toward the next office they might run for. Some freshmen held fund-raisers the week they were sworn in. The Senate leader and the Assembly leader, both Democrats, picked up nearly $2.5 million between them in the first half of this year.
The times and the rules encourage this sort of hustling after dollars. Campaigns start earlier and are increasingly expensive. After repeated attempts to adopt campaign reform laws, California has no restrictions on the amount of money anyone or any group can donate to any candidate in a state race. And a wealthy candidate can finance his or her campaign in the 30 seconds it takes to write a personal check.
The state's latest campaign reform law, 1996's Proposition 208, was nullified by a federal judge. The case is still being litigated, but the prospects for its survival are not good. Even so, it would be a mistake to rush into the void with another reform law until the U.S. Supreme Court rules this winter or next spring on a challenge to a Missouri law. It's possible that the court will find that virtually any limits on campaign contributions or spending violate free speech provisions of the U.S. Constitution.
All of this leaves California in limbo. What's possible is a continued discussion of what sort of campaign finance laws can realistically deter political corruption and undue influence, how the laws can be drafted to pass court tests and whether the state wants some form of public financing of campaigns, as established in an increasing number of states.
Meanwhile, the best safeguard of all is sunlight--to do what Deep Throat urged in Watergate: "Follow the money." Who's giving to whom and why? Media and government watchdogs need to be more alert than ever.