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Gov.'s Top Aide to Woo Donors

Potential contributors will get private access to Schwarzenegger's most trusted policy advisor.

January 12, 2006|Robert Salladay | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is dispatching his newly appointed chief of staff to woo wealthy Republican donors for his reelection effort, injecting his most influential policy advisor into the job of collecting money for his campaign.

Susan Kennedy, once a top-level Democrat, will play a key role in the governor's reelection bid, the administration confirmed Wednesday. She is being paid campaign funds in addition to her $131,000 government salary and will mix freely with influential contributors.

Campaign finance experts and legislative Democrats questioned why Kennedy -- the lead negotiator on major decisions in the Schwarzenegger administration -- would be allowed to attend private meetings with donors when many have business before the administration.

Paul S. Ryan, associate legal counsel at the Campaign Legal Center in Washington, D.C., said allowing donors access to Kennedy creates "the appearance of corruption in California. If you are fortunate to afford the price of admission, then you automatically gain access that the vast majority of Californians do not have."

Appointed last month to the highest-ranking position in the Schwarzenegger administration, Kennedy is a former Democratic Party executive and aide to former Gov. Gray Davis. She has nevertheless vowed loyalty to the Republican governor and his 2006 reelection effort.

California law allows her to attend fundraisers for the governor and work on his campaign, as long as she is doing it on her own time.

Under Davis, however, an informal rule prohibited staff members -- including Kennedy -- from attending any fundraisers, said Steve Maviglio, a former spokesman for Davis.

Schwarzenegger communications director Rob Stutzman said Kennedy would take vacation days to meet donors and work on the campaign, and would "absolutely" separate her policy job from the fundraising effort. He said that "her insight strategically on how the campaign will proceed will be invaluable."

Maviglio, who now works for Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez (D-Los Angeles), said Democrats see problems with Kennedy and other Schwarzenegger officials moving back and forth between policy discussions in the Capitol and meetings with donors. The governor's former chief of staff, Patricia Clarey, took time off from her government job to serve as Schwarzenegger's campaign manager last year.

A "Join Arnold 2006" memo sent to donors Tuesday outlines a conference call and a series of luncheons planned for Schwarzenegger and contributors. The meetings will include "briefings from senior campaign officials, including the governor's chief of staff, Susan Kennedy," according to the memo, a copy of which was obtained by The Times.

"The concern is that you are offering donors, in exchange for campaign contributions, access to a decision maker that the rest of us don't have," said Derek Cressman, founder of TheRestofUs.org, a Sacramento nonprofit organization that monitors state and federal campaign finance laws.

Ryan of the Campaign Legal Center said contributors might benefit more from access to high-ranking aides than to the elected official hosting the fundraiser.

"The staff member often has more experience in a particular subject area than the elected official. The actions of that official are going to reflect the advice they get from the advisor," he said.

Kennedy's appointment last month shocked the political establishment. Conservative Republicans, already concerned that Schwarzenegger was drifting too far left, were appalled that he would hire the former abortion rights activist and Democratic political operative to help him run the government.

Stutzman said some Republicans were concerned that Kennedy would have access to secret financial information about the Republican Party. He said Kennedy would not be privy to that kind of information, but "she is absolutely going to know reelection strategy."

The memo suggests that Schwarzenegger has begun his reelection fundraising effort in earnest, after tapping his donors for about $50 million last year in the unsuccessful special election campaign. The governor is expected to raise another $50 million for his reelection. His fundraising has already eclipsed that of Davis -- who was recalled from office in part because of perceived excesses in raising money.

Schwarzenegger's political schedule with Kennedy is busy for the next few weeks. Planned for hotels and country clubs from Jan. 18 to Feb. 9, the eight meetings are known among campaign workers as "donor maintenance" events. The information dispensed is often cursory and broad, but the gatherings allow a donor access to the highest ranks of government.

Some Capitol interests, such as environmentalists and consumer groups, have complained in the past of not having direct access to the governor's staff. But this month, lobbyists say, the administration has been more willing to reach out to non-donors, holding a series of meetings in the Capitol to outline the governor's agenda.

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