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Spotlight Is Cast on Paid Endorsements

Mailers: Rapid growth of political fliers brings charges that candidate listings are for sale to the highest bidder.


Slate mailers, an increasingly popular form of political communication in California, are giving candidates new opportunities to reach the electorate--but are also undermining campaign finance rules and, according to critics, handing out endorsements to the highest bidder.

The multimillion-dollar business produces pamphlets sent to millions of voters. The pamphlets purport to list candidates endorsed by public service organizations but, in reality, candidates pay political consultants to appear on the mailings, bartering for the cost of an endorsement.

Normally, slate mailers operate in the background of the state's political campaigns, churning out mail but otherwise attracting little attention. This week, however, one of the groups was thrust into the limelight when the Republican gubernatorial candidate, Bill Simon Jr., charged that Gov. Gray Davis had accepted campaign contributions on government property--which, if true, would have been illegal. The contribution, Simon alleged, had come from a law enforcement group known as the California Organization of Police and Sheriffs, which operates one of the slates.

In the aftermath of those charges, which were quickly disproved, campaign disclosure reports revealed that Simon had paid $300,000 for a position on the group's mailings. The police group has given Davis its support in the past, but endorsed Simon over Davis this year after the GOP candidate bought a slot on its slate. Davis, a Democrat who ran essentially unopposed during the primary, refused to buy one.

The police group has received more than $750,000 in contributions to its slate mail committee during the first nine months of this year. Kelley Moran, the group's political director, was paid $175,000 in 2000, the last full election cycle.

A largely California phenomenon, slates allow little-known candidates who cannot normally afford television advertising a chance to get their name before the state's massive, diffuse electorate. Their backers say they give underdogs a chance against well-funded opponents and give the electorate what it wants.

Appealing to Voters

"If you find an electorate that is interested in reading political debate along the lines of the Federalist Papers, you will see consultants turning out literature along the lines of the Federalist Papers," said Daniel Lowenstein, a law professor at UCLA who represents slate mailers. "You turn out an electorate where it's hard to get their attention," he continued, and voters will find slate cards.

Slates must publicly disclose the money that they are paid for endorsements in campaign reports, but efforts to impose additional regulations have been mixed.

The mailers are required to include an asterisk next to the names of candidates or initiatives that they endorse in return for payment. The 1998 campaign finance initiative, Proposition 208, would have required that marking to become a dollar sign. The slates successfully challenged that provision in court.

Several slates also use the names of the state's major political parties in their titles, but can make endorsements contrary to the party line for a fee. Legislators have tried to force mailers to disclose when they contradict party endorsements, but a federal court last month overturned the regulation, ruling that it interfered with the slates' 1st Amendment rights.

"It tells you how difficult it is to have 'election reform,' " said the author of the measure, Senate President Pro Tem John Burton (D-San Francisco). Of slate makers, he added: "They ain't ... in it for good government; they're in it to make money."

Slates rose to prominence in the 1970s and 1980s, at first under the control of partisan organizations such as the Westside Democratic Berman-Waxman machine. But the slate business has evolved since then, with many of the mailers representing themselves as nonpartisan interest groups.

California's Secretary of State lists 220 slate mailer groups, compared with the roughly 60 that were registered 12 years ago. They range from small neighborhood lists focused on local city council races to massive statewide mailings that churn through hundreds of thousands of dollars in fees every election season.

"Instead of getting your two or three pieces of mail from Berman-Waxman, now everybody gets tons of them," said a veteran Democratic political consultant, Bill Carrick. "You have public officials hustling a slate. You have people doing it around issues, or in some cases pseudo-issues."

Medical Slate Mailer

A couple of years ago, political consultant Rob Katherman was having a drink with an advisor to the Los Angeles County Medical Assn. when the two hit on an idea: How about starting a slate that endorses candidates who are good for health care? From that came Californians for Quality Health Care.

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