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Like the State, Legislators Have Their Hats in Hand

Fund-raising is in full flower in Sacramento, even as lawmakers attempt to hammer out an eleventh-hour budget agreement.

June 12, 2003|Jenifer Warren | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — Never mind that California is $38 billion in the hole. Never mind that the constitutional deadline for passing a state budget looms Sunday. Never mind that Democrats and Republicans appear generations away from a compromise.

This week, the ladies and gentleman of the Legislature took time out from the business of budget-crafting to continue that most hallowed of political traditions: fund-raising.

Yes, they acknowledge, the state is in fiscal distress. But campaigns cost money, and there's always another one around the bend.

With that in mind, lawmakers mingled, munched and chatted with lobbyists at a swirl of cocktail parties, breakfasts and other soirees during the past three days, collecting per-guest checks that ranged from $500 for rookies to $25,000 for the powerful leader of the Senate.

Typical was the $1,000-a-plate fete thrown by Assemblywoman Carol Liu (D-La Canada Flintridge) at the Exploding Head Gallery near the Capitol.

Surrounded by vivid abstract paintings of horses, cats and disembodied eyeballs, Liu offered a parade of lobbyists a handshake, her ear and a repast of chicken wings and fruit kebobs.

"This is just life in Sacramento," Liu said. "We do need to raise money for our own campaigns, unless you can write your own checks."

Most fund-raisers are morning and evening events, held before and after legislative sessions. Moreover, lawmakers note, the principal work on the budget at this point rests with the so-called Big Five: the leaders of both houses and Gov. Gray Davis. Still, the lawmakers are trolling for dollars at a time when the state is mired in economic crisis. And this year, with the fight over state spending priorities so fierce, clients have added incentive to purchase tickets for their lobbyists.

For Martin Gallegos, the stakes are exceptionally high. His client, the California Healthcare Assn., is pressing legislators to resist Medi-Cal cuts proposed by the governor.

Pressing the flesh at a $1,500-a-ticket fete for Jim Brulte (R-Rancho Cucamonga) Tuesday evening, Gallegos said he and three fellow lobbyists were trying to hit 13 fund-raisers before the night was done.

"Tomorrow's just as busy," he said.

Trade associations such as California Healthcare pay for admission to the parties, Gallegos said, to support "legislators who we feel are doing a good job in the Legislature and who we feel should continue in elected office."

Though it wasn't a record, the pace of the begging was brisk, with 23 events scheduled Monday through today at watering holes and hotels within a four-block radius of the Capitol.

Among those holding out their hats this week were two of the Big Five budget negotiators, Senate leaders: Brulte and John Burton (D-San Francisco).

Davis had no fund-raisers scheduled this week, nor did the committee fighting his recall.

Lobbyists say the deluge of invitations -- many of them buttressed by a personal phone call from a legislator -- sets up a delicate decision about which events offer clients the most bang for their buck. Do you go for melba toast with artichoke topping with up-and-comer Democrat Assemblyman Mark Leno of San Francisco, or cough up $1,000 to rub elbows with termed-out and self-described "dean of the Legislature" Sen. John Vasconcellos (D-Santa Clara)?

While some contend that the fund-raising circuit amounts to a dance of mutual coercion, lobbyists insist that, at best, the events are about developing relationships, offering a chance to ask a politician about his golf game or marvel over wallet photos of his kids.

Still, some lawmakers remember who shows at their events and who doesn't, lobbyists say, so the unspoken pressure to attend can be intense.

"Fear is attracting a lot of lobbyists to these events this year because, more than ever, everybody wants to protect their particular program from cuts," said Robert Stern of the Los Angeles-based Center for Governmental Studies.

For busy lobbyists, the daily blitz of political mixers is nothing short of a grind. Tuesday was a perfect case in point.

Eager early birds got the day rolling at a 7:30 breakfast for Assemblywoman Ellen Corbett (D-San Leandro), then had a choice of meeting with Sen. Betty Karnette (D-Long Beach) over Mexican food or breakfasting with Assemblywoman Loni Hancock, a Democrat from Berkeley, at Virga's Courtyard.

After a midday pause, lobbyists were faced with a menu of eight possible evening events, an array that kept many tapping on their electronic pocket planners for event times and locales.

Some lobbyists showed their faces for five minutes at one event before tearing off their name tags and dashing to the next.

Alan Edelstein was among those who exhibited wear and tear from the social treadmill. Walking into Liu's event at the Exploding Head Gallery, Edelstein confessed to the assemblywoman that he'd been "kind of making the rounds."

"You look a little weary," Liu teased.

"Do I look that bad?" he asked.

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