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Success: Deeds, Not Dollars

November 10, 2002

No slowpoke in the political arena, Todd Spitzer quickly learned what leadership in the Legislature is all about.

"Money is a significant factor in whether people interact with you and take you seriously," the assemblyman-elect told Times reporter Jean O. Pasco before the Nov. 5 election.

He was talking about Sacramento, where the Orange County supervisor will be doing most of his business now.

Spitzer, the Republican candidate in an overwhelmingly GOP district, raised a $662,000 war chest -- 662 times what his Democratic opponent accumulated.

More power to Spitzer. And power is exactly what all this money is about. Spitzer didn't need all that cash to win.

But taking office with lots of money and a proven ability to raise more helps newcomers gain leadership positions in the Capitol -- as long as they're willing to spread the money around to other candidates.

That's especially true in this era of term limits. Once legislators waited to gain the experience and seniority that brought plum assignments. Now they don't have those years in public office, and feel pushed to make a mark more quickly.

Spitzer didn't create this power structure, and it's hard to blame him for taking advantage of it. It's to his benefit, and probably Orange County's as well, for him to start out with legislative clout.

The system, though, bears an unsavory resemblance to sausage-making. Sacramento needs a better way to delegate decision-making powers.

Now that Spitzer has gained his seat -- with 73% of the vote in a district where he's likely to hang on with a minimum of future campaigning -- it's time for him to set aside issues of campaign coffers and focus on the primary task: good government and good leadership, qualities that too often seem in short supply in Sacramento. The last thing a new legislator should aim for is to follow Gov. Gray Davis' path of shamelessly perpetual fund-raising.

The 40-year-old freshman assemblyman is by no means lacking in leadership qualities. He speaks his mind. He has been willing to take unpopular positions. And he clearly learns quickly how the system works.

On the less flattering side, he has shown a willingness to twist government around to achieve narrow political aims. Earlier this year, he successfully pushed for a charter amendment to keep Davis, a Democrat, from filling the Republican's supervisor seat.

Fund-raising is Spitzer's ticket to power. What Spitzer accomplishes with that power will be the real measure of his success.

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