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Nunez's World Cup Goal: Politics

Assembly speaker is selling tickets to Berlin games for $25,000 to help his committee raise money for November ballot proposals.

June 17, 2006|Nancy Vogel | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — In a new twist on political fundraising, Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez is selling World Cup soccer-match tickets to raise money for measures on the November ballot -- including, possibly, a measure to adjust lawmakers' term limits.

For $25,000, corporations can send representatives to Berlin to attend three World Cup matches with Nunez, an avid soccer fan. The package includes the match tickets, three nights in a hotel, travel to the soccer stadium and tickets for pregame parties, but not the airfare to Europe.

The international fundraiser will generate money for Nunez's Committee to Protect California's Future and pay for efforts to help pass ballot propositions. Nunez supports the five-measure, $47-billion infrastructure bond package placed on the November ballot by the Legislature and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

But Nunez also wants the Legislature to put before voters a measure that would tweak term limits so that lawmakers can stay longer in one house. Nunez and other legislative leaders have been discussing changing term limits so that a lawmaker can serve no more than 12 years in the Legislature, down from the current limit of 14 years, but serve all of it in one house. Current law limits a legislator to six years in the Assembly and eight in the Senate.

Nunez, who must leave the Assembly after 2008, has said he is committed to having the Legislature put such a measure on the ballot either this November or in 2008. The World Cup fundraiser would help support a proposition campaign.

To put a measure before voters, Nunez said, "it's going to cost $10 million, and you're not going to raise $10 million having chicken dinners. I've got to find creative ways of raising the dough."

"You can't communicate with 37 million people with $10 in your pocket and a smoke signal," he added.

The speaker's fundraiser bought 25 World Cup packages from a travel agency, and he is now in the process of selling them for $25,000. Corporations, unions and utilities including Pacific Gas & Electric and Southern California Edison have been invited, said Nunez fundraiser Dan Weitzman. He said it wasn't clear yet which donors would be sending representatives other than Anheuser-Busch, but AT&T and Verizon would not. Those phone companies stand to earn billions of dollars providing cable television service to Californians under a bill written by Nunez, AB 2987, that is now pending in the state Senate. The bill aims to cut Californians' monthly cable bills by making it easier for phone companies to compete against cable companies.

Weitzman said that Nunez would pay for his own trip to Germany with funds from the Committee to Protect California's Future, which Nunez used last year to fight several ballot measures in the November special election called by Schwarzenegger. His committee reports more than $416,000 cash on hand. Major donations to the fund in the last year include $500,000 from the California Teachers Assn. and $100,000 each from the Zenith Insurance Co. and the state prison guards' union.

Ned Wigglesworth, an analyst with the campaign-finance watchdog group TheRestof US.org, said it seems that Nunez is "ramping up the bells and whistles" to entice donors. In April, AT&T held a fundraiser featuring Nunez at its famous Pebble Beach golf course, and in February 2005, lending company Ameriquest and other corporations played host to Nunez and several other lawmakers at the Pro Bowl in Honolulu. The Hawaii weekend raised money for the state Democratic party.

"Certainly there's a level of access that's being bought here," said Wigglesworth. "But people who have this much money to give already have access."

Nunez "is the second- or third-most powerful person in California politics," said Wigglesworth. "He shouldn't have to hawk vacation packages in order to get people to give him political donations."

Nunez said he supports pending legislation that aims to lessen special-interest influence by financing political campaigns with taxpayer money.

"I would rather be focusing most of my time on policy," he said, "but these are the rules of the game .... You've got to raise money, you've got to be creative."

Nunez said he's confident he could get legislation to change term limits through the Legislature, but polls show that the odds with voters are "50-50."

"I've got to decide whether I want to flip a coin and go to the voters with this," he said.

Voters imposed term limits in 1990, in part to oust San Francisco Democrat Willie Brown, who presided as Assembly speaker for more than 14 years. Since then, political scientists have credited term limits with bringing more women and minorities to the Assembly and Senate. But term limits have also been blamed for filling the Legislature with inexperienced politicians who are focused less on solving fundamental policy problems than on winning a new office. Term limits, some experts say, have also empowered bureaucrats, lobbyists and the governor at the expense of legislative leadership.

The ban on career lawmakers appears to be popular in California. In 2002, lawmakers asked voters to allow them to serve one more term by first getting the signatures of a certain number of voters in their district. Voters rejected the measure, Proposition 45, 58% to 42%.

Larry Gerston, a San Jose State political scientist, said a proposal to shorten the overall number of years that lawmakers can serve while allowing them to stay longer in one house might win voter support.

"It's one way of honoring term limits but at least giving legislators more opportunity to build some seniority," he said.

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