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Slate Mailers Need Scrutiny

March 31, 2002

Politicians have embraced slate mailers for decades because the mass mailings are effective. The ubiquitous mailers that spotlight four or more candidates or issues usually appear in voters' mailboxes with little fanfare. But what happened in one Orange County race this month should prompt state election officials to keep an eye out for potential abuses that eventually might require new restrictions on what in effect are campaign contributions.

Mailers made news when Supervisor Cynthia P. Coad alleged that victorious opponent Chris Norby got an illegal boost from a flurry of mailings. The supervisor argues that the mailings were subsidized by supporters of Measure W, the successful initiative that rezoned the El Toro Marine base for a park. Norby has friends in the anti-airport camp, but his campaign managers are adamant that he paid fair-market value for space in the mailers.

The controversy turns on how the contested mailers were funded. Those who've studied the content of the mailers say the pieces probably fit the letter, if not the spirit, of state and county election law. However, they suspect that a significant new loophole has appeared in Orange County's political contributions limits.

Mailers are produced by political consultants who generate profits by collecting fees from candidates and ballot issue groups. Candidates can spend as much money as they want on mailers. Organizations also are free to make donations to mailers, but, unlike political contributions, donations for mailers aren't subject to Orange County's contribution limits.

Because there is no legal requirement to disclose exactly how mailers are financed, it is difficult to determine whether Norby received what's tantamount to an unreported campaign donation.

If a group with deep pockets did find a loophole, other politicians in Orange County will quickly connect the dots and regulators will be hard-pressed to determine whether candidates are skirting donation limits by encouraging cash-flush supporters to make donations to friendly mailers.

Campaign reform is like an amoeba: Push in at one point and a corresponding bulge is likely to appear somewhere else. The Norby case provides food for thought: The state may have to eventually require disclosure on who donated, restrict organizations' donations to slate mailers or, perhaps, force mailers to publish--and stick to--rate cards.

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