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Lawmakers' Votes Make Them Targets

State limits donations to candidates, but special interest groups can fund independent campaigns. Card clubs go after five who opposed their bill.

October 24, 2004|Dan Morain | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — Assemblywoman Judy Chu has just learned the price of opposing a single piece of legislation: $87,199.

That's what Los Angeles-area card casinos have spent in opposition to her reelection this fall -- even though there is virtually no chance Chu will lose her seat Nov. 2. The reason for the card clubs' ire: The San Gabriel Valley Democrat helped torpedo a bill that could have benefited them.

"It is chilling," Chu said of the campaign against her, launched this weekend when critical mailers began arriving in voters' mailboxes. "It is meant to prevent legislators from doing the right thing and voting their conscience. It is a sign of bullying from the gambling industry, and it's the tip of the iceberg."

California campaign law limits the size of donations made directly to candidates -- but not amounts spent on independent campaigns for or against them. So special interest groups increasingly mount such campaigns to help allies or hurt those who don't advance their views.

The card clubs formed the Los Angeles Casinos Political Action Committee and entered the independent campaign derby in this election, spending $427,000 on 13 Assembly races. In addition to Chu, they spent money against four other incumbents who voted with her against the same bill. The card rooms spent $50,000 against Assemblywoman Jenny Oropeza (D-Long Beach), who abstained.

Seven lawmakers who have supported the card clubs' views received financial support from the group. The committee has nearly $700,000 left in the bank going into the final week of the campaign.

Horse racetracks, which share some interests with the card clubs, have raised $1 million for this fall's campaign. The tracks filed campaign reports Friday showing they spent an initial $330,000, including nearly $75,000 for a separate effort against Chu.

The card parlors' targets include Democrats and Republicans, conservatives and liberals. Some represent cities. Others are from rural districts. The bill they voted down attracted almost no public attention when it died in the Legislature earlier this year.

But the measure, SB 1524 by Sen. Ed Vincent (D-Inglewood), which would have revised arcane rules governing card room ownership, is the subject of a long-running fight in the Capitol. California card club proprietors, who sponsored the bill, are barred from owning interests in out-of-state gambling operations -- not even a single share of stock.

On the other side of the tussle are Indian tribes that own casinos -- among the most politically influential groups in the state. They oppose any change in the rules. Card rooms want to strike alliances with rich gambling corporations, tribes contend, as a way to increase their financial clout so they can expand their enterprises.

Tribes routinely rely on out-of-state corporations for financing and management of their own casinos, but they want to limit competition.

Haig Kelegian, part owner of the Bicycle Club, a card room in Bell Gardens, and Ocean's 11, in Oceanside, said the rules were so tight that his adult sons could lose their right to small stakes in his clubs if they pursue plans to open a card room in Washington state. Kelegian said card room owners have no choice but to become more active.

"We have to target legislators who want to work strictly for the Indians," Kelegian said. "We are not going away. We are going to fight. We are going to continue to work on getting our industry some equality."

The 2004 election is the second in which legislative races have been governed by Proposition 34, the contribution cap to legislative candidates approved by voters in 2000. Interest groups for trial attorneys, insurers and prison guards have spent more than $7 million on independent efforts for and against candidates this fall. The card rooms' spending marks the emergence of an aggressive new player.

Elizabeth Garrett, a USC law professor and director of USC-Caltech Center on Law and Politics, said there was nothing wrong with such expenditures.

"In politics, one way to make your message credible is to put money behind it," Garrett said. "It shows you're serious."

Because the card rooms' spending against incumbents probably won't affect their reelection prospects, the message is more subtle, Garrett said. If the card clubs and racetracks will spend $160,000 against a candidate who is almost sure to win, "imagine how they'd spend on a race where it would make a difference," she said.

Card rooms and racetracks opened the year by sponsoring Proposition 68, an initiative intended to give them slot machines by breaking Indian tribes' exclusive right to them. The groups raised nearly $28 million to promote the measure, but it has lagged so badly in polls that the sponsors ended their campaign, redirecting some money to legislative races.

In an Assembly district north of Sacramento, the Los Angeles card clubs rented a billboard deriding Assemblyman Doug La Malfa (R-Richvale) as a pawn of Indian gambling interests.

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