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Spitzer's War Chest Buys Him Early Clout

Some of the Assembly candidate's cash aids others, perhaps helping him to a leadership post.

October 20, 2002|Jean O. Pasco | Times Staff Writer

His black hair gelled back, knees bared in boxy khaki shorts, Todd Spitzer strode through Green River Golf Club in Corona shaking hands and posing for pictures like a candidate in the final sprint of a razor-close race.

The sold-out fund-raiser for Spitzer's Assembly run raised $90,000, but he probably won't spend a dime of it on the campaign.

His newly redrawn district in Orange and Riverside counties is heavily Republican, all but assuring him victory. His Democratic opponent has raised less than $1,000 -- a pittance compared to the $662,000 collected by Spitzer, who has the largest war chest of any state Assembly candidate.

But Spitzer will need the money once he gets to Sacramento, as he struggles to make an impact in the six years he can serve in the Assembly before being term-limited out.

Spitzer's campaign reflects the new reality for legislative candidates, where the fight is less about getting elected than having power once you enter the Capitol.

Ambitious lawmakers hoping to rise to leadership must arrive with clout -- or enough money to buy it. The realities are even tougher for a freshman Republican in the Democrat-dominated Capitol.

Spitzer said that when he was in Sacramento recently, candidates were already asking for a piece of his riches. He agreed to part with $12,000 for three GOP Assembly candidates and a Senate candidate in more competitive races.

"Money is a significant factor in whether people interact with you and take you seriously," said Spitzer, 40. "I'm going to be a back-bencher minority freshman who's not going to get any playing time, I know that."

Such a hefty campaign fund will open many doors for a freshman assemblyman, said longtime GOP analyst Tony Quinn, who co-produces the California Target Book, which analyzes state races.

Spitzer could spread the money around to the party and Republican officeholders, hoping to lock in support for a leadership spot.

This was the playbook of Herb Wesson (D-Culver City), who became Assembly speaker this year after successfully raising millions to help party colleagues after his 1998 election. In the state Senate, three incumbents in safe districts have more campaign cash than Spitzer.

But Spitzer is unique because he's accumulated the war chest even though he's not in the Legislature yet.

This fund-raising record will probably make him an instant player in Sacramento, said Rob Stutzman, state Republican party spokesman. "It qualifies him for future leadership because he's demonstrated he can raise the money, and it certainly gives him a leg up in any future race," Stutzman said.

Spitzer's strategy points up one of the unintended consequences of term limits, said Jim Knox, executive director of California Common Cause. With their tenure now limited, Knox said, lawmakers are committed to nonstop fund-raising to raise their profile and get things done.

"It never stops," he said. "[The money] is never enough."

Spitzer has been a prodigious fund-raiser since his first try for office in 1996. Running for the Board of Supervisors, Spitzer raised $150,000 and won a surprise victory even through much of the GOP establishment backed his opponent.

A former prosecutor, Spitzer gained a reputation as a firebrand, becoming a vocal opponent of an airport at El Toro and often clashing with county executives. His outspokenness earned him the nickname "Ready, Fire, Aim."

Even from the safety of his board seat, Spitzer continued to build his campaign bankroll. His fund-raising, however, accelerated over the past year when he announced his candidacy for the 71st Assembly district.

Spitzer has collected most of his campaign cash during this period, as he served both as supervisor and as chairman of the Orange County Transportation Authority, the government panel that oversees transportation spending. His major donors include the Irvine Co., 21st Century Insurance and Medix Ambulance Service.

He also has attracted attention from political action committees that are staples for incumbents, including the California Real Estate PAC and California Medical Assn. PAC.

Locally, his supporters include Republicans as well as Democrats, who see him as driven more by policy than partisanship.

Many donors said they know he doesn't need more money for his Assembly race. They said their checks are an investment in his future. "He'll be our governor in the next 10 years," said Bill Wood, a Democrat, former chairman of the Orange County Human Relations Commission and a Spitzer contributor.

Spitzer said he raised the first half of the money when he thought he'd face a wealthy Riverside County challenger, who never materialized. He isn't saying what he'll do after the election, declining to comment on persistent chatter that he's interested in a run for attorney general.

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