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California and the West | Patt Morrison

Reserve the Right to Bite the Hand That Feeds You

May 10, 2000|Patt Morrison

Just as it happens in Hollywood, first I read the story, then I saw the video.

And just as it happens in Hollywood, the video didn't much resemble the story.

There stood Insurance Commissioner Chuck Quackenbush, videotaped last October at the Greater Sacramento Urban League, taking a bow for a $500,000 donation to the league from a nonprofit foundation fund created by his office.

He was poised, he was witty, he was trying to grow his arms long enough to pat himself on the back without appearing to do so.

Soon, it would be his nose that did the growing.

There stood Quackenbush again, this time testifying last month before a legislative committee that it was news to him. "That was a surprise to me. . . . I had nothing to do with the dispensation or guidance of where those funds went."

Hmm--which to believe: video or testimony? Testimony or video? I won't call the contradiction a lie, but it was surely the most pretzeled political remark since "I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky." I'm shocked, shocked to find that fibbing is going on in Sacramento.

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The Urban League got the biggest bit of the $11.6-million war chest of the California Research and Development Foundation, an outfit created by Quackenbush's office from insurance company donations.

The league cashed its check in July. The same month, Quackenbush became an Urban League board member. Among the other beneficiaries of foundation dough: the 100 Black Men service organization, $200,000; an Oakland nonprofit urban renewal and job training project, $100,000; the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame, $10,000; the National Latino Peace Officers Assn., $12,000; and Los Angeles foster children's quinceanera, a rite of passage gala for 15-year-old Latinas, $10,000.

Notice a pattern? A million to minority nonprofits, not one cent to earthquake victims. The largess was shepherded by George Grays, then a deputy insurance commissioner whose job had little to do with insurance and much to do with minority contacts, of the kind he provided to his previous bosses, Republican governors George Deukmejian and Pete Wilson.

Had this not blown up in Quackenbush's face, it would have been brilliant politics. Strategists would have emulated it, tacticians would have taught it.

Why? Because everybody gives to groups that support them. Pols from Ted Kennedy to Jesse Helms plow money into nonprofits of their own making--and their own political stripe.

But the genius of this was giving to groups who would be expected to oppose a white male Republican. And who knows? Come election time, it could have rendered him bulletproof: "What about that guy running for Senate, Quacken-whatsis?" "You kidding? He's a Republican." "Yeah, but he's on the Urban League board, he gave money to the Latino cops--he even went to a Christmas-Kwanzaa fund-raiser. Maybe he's not so bad."

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Quackenbush joins generous if not always good company. For years, minority leaders have been in a quandary over who helps their organizations, and why. Big Tobacco has given to jazz festivals, Congress' black and Hispanic caucus foundations and the Dance Theatre of Harlem. Yet because minorities suffer disproportionately from liquor and smoking ailments, taking such money has subjected them to disproportionately more criticism.

But Compton was the first California city to ban liquor and tobacco billboards, which in some poor neighborhoods are more numerous than trees. And last week, protesters demanded that Whittier take the Bud out of its annual Budweiser Cinco de Mayo event. Not only does it make a holiday into a tawdry boozefest, they said, but it is unseemly when surveys show about one in four Mexican American men is a heavy drinker.

Joe Hicks, who heads Los Angeles' human relations commission, offers a little history. Where once minority groups were self-sustaining and independent--"the NAACP in the '30s and '40s existed on nickel contributions from cleaning women"--now "you have many groups that exist largely on the largess of the private sector and/or foundations, and in many ways that provides a brake on the ability of these groups to act as independently as they would like to."

Yet more progressives sit in corporate boardrooms and give away corporate money "with an honest sense of, 'That's the way I perceive the world.' "

The real scandal, bigger even than Quackenbush, is that so little money leaves these groups so few options--including, perhaps, the option of biting the hand that feeds them, whether it's the left hand or the right.

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Patt Morrison writes today for the vacationing Mike Downey. Morrison's e-mail address is patt.morrison@latimes.com.

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