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Turkey Giveaway a Feather in California Politicians' Caps

Aid: Lawmakers burnish their images while handing out food, paid for by a consortium of water firms.

November 23, 2000|JOE MOZINGO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Forget kissing babies and shaking hands.

For the last week, politicians across the state have been frantically giving away thousands of frozen turkeys to everyone from your local Rotarian to down-and-out families in the projects.

It is called Operation Gobble, and it is no small undertaking. An estimated 25,000 turkeys have been given to charity this year through the program.

But don't be deceived. Although the hundred or so participating pols get the endearing photo opportunities and good press, it's the California Water Assn. that is supplying the fowl.

The association is a consortium of 52 private water companies that lobbies in Sacramento on behalf of its members and has staged Operation Gobble for the last 11 years.

As such, the group owns the market on turkey giveaways.

At one of its many events this week, Assembly Speaker Bob Hertzberg (D-Sherman Oaks) helped distribute 500 turkeys to senior citizens and low-income families on behalf of Southern California Water Co. Mayoral candidate and former Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa (D-Los Angeles) gave the same number of frozen birds to charity for the California Water Service Co. And Assemblywoman Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles) gave 50 turkeys bought by San Gabriel Valley Water Co. to families living in an El Sereno housing project.

Some of the politicians doling out the turkeys, such as Assemblyman Thomas Calderon (D-Montebello), sponsored legislation this year for the water association.

But because the poultry is not actually donated to the legislators, it doesn't have to be listed on disclosure forms.

"It's a pretty creative way for lobbyists or agencies who lobby at the Capitol to curry favor with legislators," said Jim Knox of the political watchdog group Common Cause. "I don't see how it can be regulated or if it should be regulated."

Knox said the practice sounds similar to in-kind contributions, in which a person or group offers services, not money, to a politico. But Operation Gobble seems a little different, he added. The water association is effectively letting politicians take some of the credit for the companies' philanthropy, something impossible to quantify on campaign contribution forms.

The group's executive director, Sharun Carlson, said the turkey drive is not a publicity device but a holiday gesture to the community. She said the lawmakers are asked to help because they can identify respectable charities or nonprofit groups in their districts. And shareholders shoulder the cost.

"We feed 250,000 people a year," she said.

Garry Hofer, spokesman for member firm Suburban Water Systems in Covina, said the giveaways help the companies connect with the communities they serve at a time when fears about contaminants in the ground water are high. "Having a positive image is very important to us," he said.

And for politicians, the giveaways are part of the job, a stop between feeding the homeless on Thanksgiving Day and the toy drives at Christmas.

When Romero took office last year, she didn't know that handing out turkeys was part of the job description. "When I first got into office, I had a constituent call and say, 'Where are my turkeys?' "

She said she mobilized quickly and began doing what her predecessor, Diane Martinez (D-Monterey Park), had done: hooking up with Operation Gobble.

Even though their aides do their best to draw the media to the events, the lawmakers say that the giveaways are simply meant to serve constituents and that the water association gets no special treatment for helping provide that service.

"Last night, I brought a basket with a turkey that I got from a water company for a low-income home in Montebello," Calderon said. "They practically had tears in their eyes. The father said he just paid rent and had no money for food.

"Any perception that these water companies may be getting an extra stroke from the assemblyman is outweighed by the good we are doing providing food to a hungry family."

While Calderon is one of the Legislature's top water wonks--the chairman of a select committee on San Gabriel Valley ground water contamination and head of the Southern California Water Caucus--he said the giveaways have had no effect on his policymaking, including legislation he sponsored for the water association earlier this year.

Had it not died in August, AB 2646 would have forced polluters to pay more to clean up ground water contamination. The association lobbied hard for the bill, which, according to the group's newsletter, would have "put investor-owned water utilities in a much stronger position to deal with polluters."

In the last week, Calderon participated in four giveaways with Suburban Water Systems and San Gabriel Valley Water Co. He said such interactions between him and the water industry are much different from lobbying.

"When we do these turkey giveaways, it's, 'Gee, how's your family?' We don't talk business," he said. "I'll still come down on them like a ton of bricks when they mess up."

*

Times staff writer Grace Jang contributed to this story.

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