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ORANGE COUNTY COMMENTARY

Worthless Mailers Are Moneymakers

July 21, 2002|SHIRLEY GRINDLE | Shirley Grindle is a longtime community activist

Who among us is not fed up with the overkill of campaign literature that lands in our mailboxes during the last weeks before an election? Is it not enough that candidates mail upward of a dozen or so self-aggrandizing brochures? Now, a new source of campaign fodder called slate mailers is hitting voter households at a fast and furious pace.

Slate mailer organizations are uniquely defined and regulated by the California Political Reform Act. They consist of one or more individuals who collect money from candidates, ballot measure proponents and others to produce and distribute slate mailers.

The first slate mailer organizations were closely tied to political parties--largely the Republicans and Democrats--that used slate mailers to tell voters which candidates their party was supporting. Naturally a Republican slate mailer organization promoted Republican candidates and the Democrat organizations promoted Democrats.

It didn't take long for those looking for a fast buck to figure out that slate mailings could be turned into a cash cow because there are few regulations, and slate mailings can be created with little effort and cost. As a result, people with access to databases of voters' names and addresses have formed numerous slate mailer organizations.

These organizations for the most part now have no association with political parties or with any particular conservative or liberal organization. Instead, they operate under innocuous-sounding names such as the Good Government Guide, Citizens Voting Guide for Preserving Home Rule, or Police and Fire Services Voters Guide. The names are specifically chosen to deceive the voting public into thinking that candidates whose names are listed in the slate mailers are endorsed by established organizations--when in reality the slate mailers are produced by only a few people.

The only real asset that these organizations provide to candidates is the ability to access databases of mailing lists of registered voters--but these databases are not all that hard to come by in today's highly computerized world. Just about anyone could get into this business.

Candidates pay varying amounts to be listed on the slate mailer. Often, a headliner candidate, such as the president or governor, is featured on the slate. The high-profile candidate is used to attract lesser-known candidates--the cash cows who pay varying amounts to have their name included. One candidate might pay $5,000 to appear on a slate mailer; another candidate might pay 10 times as much to be included on a mailer sent to the same database. Each candidate negotiates separately with the individuals running the slate mailer organization.

So what is wrong with this scenario? First of all, it's time for the voters to wise up to these slate mailers. Just because a candidate's name appears on a slate mailer doesn't mean he or she has been endorsed by a reputable association or political party. The truth is that most of the candidates whose names appear on the slate mailer are listed only because they paid to be listed. And they are not necessarily endorsed or supported by anyone.

Second, the fact that a slate mailer organization is free to charge candidates varying amounts for identical services is the same as providing a discount to certain candidates. The California Political Reform Act requires that any discounts on printing, catering for a fund-raiser or other campaign services be considered as in-kind contributions to the candidate. Whoever provides the services is supposed to report the value of the in-kind contribution to the candidate, who then discloses it on his or her campaign disclosure statement. Mysteriously, discounts offered by slate mailer organizations are not considered in-kind contributions to the candidate, which creates a giant loophole in those jurisdictions where contribution limits are in effect.

Another anomaly in the laws governing slate mailer organizations is that the individuals operating the organization are allowed to turn the excess funds into personal income. But a candidate who has money left over after campaign expenses isn't allowed to pocket the money for personal use. So the strict rules governing the use of campaign funds are completely lacking when it comes to slate mailer organizations. Whatever funds are left over after paying for producing and distributing the slate mailers are pure profit.

That's why these pseudo-businesses are such cash cows.

One organization recently reported expenses of just under $400,000 for a series of slate mailers for which it received in excess of $2 million from a few candidates and ballot measure committees. That's a $1.6-million profit.

My advice to all voters is to do what I do with slate mailers--throw them in the trash can. They no longer represent endorsements by reputable associations or political parties. They're merely another form of campaign literature disguised to deceive the voting public. Once the public realizes this, slate mailers will cease to have any value to either the candidates or the voters.

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