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California and the West | CAPITOL JOURNAL

Trading Prizes for Support on Election Day

September 25, 2000|GEORGE SKELTON

SACRAMENTO — Edward "Fast Eddie" Vrdolyak came to mind last week when I read that the school voucher campaign was dangling big prizes to lure volunteer help.

The Times reported that the Proposition 38 effort--financed largely by Silicon Valley venture capitalist Tim Draper--is offering bounties to people who recruit the most supporters. The rewards include 38 iMac computers, five $2,000 shopping sprees at Macy's, and the grand prize: a Hawaii vacation for four. Total value of all these inducements: $73,200.

Immediately there were howls. "Akin to vote-buying," charged political reformer Tony Miller. "Certainly not my ideal of democracy," declared UC Berkeley political scientist Bruce Cain.

I thought of Fast Eddie.

A Chicago alderman and ward boss, Vrdolyak used to dole out new garbage cans to the supporters of Mayor Richard J. Daley's political machine. They'd be dropped off on election eve. A city worker who actually made the deliveries once told me, "Give a guy a garbage can and he'll vote any way ya want. It's amazing. He thinks you've given him a million dollars."

I asked Vrdolyak about this smelly practice just before the Illinois presidential primary in 1976. What size can? Fast Eddie stared back and responded: "A 55-gallon drum. Guy like you could fit in it."

Last week, I also thought of legendary lobbyist Artie Samish, the mid-century, self-proclaimed "Secret Boss of California." Physically huge and politically powerful, he'd hold forth each night in the Senator Hotel across the street from the state Capitol, dispensing favors to friendly lawmakers. Samish used to brag, "I can tell whether a guy wants money, a girl or a baked potato."

But why dwell only in the past? Gov. Gray Davis has been known to offer a slot in his golf foursome for a $25,000 campaign contribution.

Fried chicken. Doughnuts. Pot holders. Walkin' around money . . . Cabinet posts. Ambassadorships. Sleepovers in the Lincoln Bedroom. They've all been dangled by politicians, from council members to commanders in chief.

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So what's the big deal?

"It's a matter of degree," asserted L.A. City Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas, who phoned to register his outrage. "There's a significant difference between a pot holder and a computer, between a refrigerator magnet and a trip to Maui. . . .

"There's a medium of exchange here that borders on the vulgar."

At an L.A. news conference, Ridley-Thomas joined other anti-voucher African Americans--pastors, educators, labor leaders--in urging blacks: "Don't let your vote be bought with some crass campaign stunt like a computer giveaway."

Miller, a former secretary of state, concedes, "This isn't vote-buying." But he adds, "It's close to it. It's abhorrent. This should be about issues--not opportunities for a prize. . . .

"If this flies, I suspect we'll see a lot more of it. It's a door we shouldn't open."

Veteran Democratic consultant Darry Sragow makes this observation: "It's not illegal or immoral. It's stupid.

"It diminishes their cause. When [campaign volunteers] show up at your door, you'll wonder whether it's because they support vouchers or because they're going to get a computer."

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Stupid or ingenious, this door was opened a long time ago.

Initiative backers--often special interests--pay professional petition circulators from $2 to $5 a signature to qualify their proposals for the ballot. Courts have ruled reformers can't stop this. But it's probably not quite the direct democracy that do-gooder Progressives had in mind when they created the citizen initiative 89 years ago.

Political parties pay similar bounties for signing up new voters.

Slate mailers are odorous. The California Teachers Assn. recently cut a deal with the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn.--its philosophical opposite--to buy into that group's slate mailer for $750,000. The mailer will trumpet Jarvis' new opposition to Prop. 38, which the CTA is fiercely fighting. These strange bedfellows deny any pay-for-opposition quid pro quo. Right!

Prop. 38 folks note the CTA also has dangled computers in its anti-voucher campaign. There is a difference, however: The teachers' union offered five computers in a drawing aimed merely at acquiring its members' e-mail addresses. It's likely these teachers already opposed vouchers.

The real significance of Prop. 38's campaign ploy is its innovative list of new political prizes. "Traditional voter contact brought into the 21st century," asserts spokesman Chris Bertelli.

But it all fits into the same bag: Trash cans and computers. Doughnuts and shopping sprees. Paris ambassadorships and Hawaii vacations. Prizes and payoffs. Politics isn't purity.

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