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Money talks when topic is ballot endorsements

October 22, 2006|Dan Morain | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — They portray themselves as truth-tellers, honest brokers and experts on such issues as taxation, racial equality, public safety and healthcare.

But come election season, they are the political equivalent of spokesmodels, endorsing causes and candidates and often collecting big paychecks, some topping $100,000. With the cost of statewide campaigns in this election zooming toward $450 million, these expert endorsers are raking it in.

The tobacco industry, opposing the Proposition 86 cigarette tax, paid Sacramento consultant Alice Huffman $160,000. Huffman heads the California NAACP -- and the venerable civil rights organization is opposing the $2.60-per-pack tax on the Nov. 7 ballot.

In some instances, consultants play the part of "agent." The oil industry, fighting the Proposition 87 oil tax, has paid $35,000 to Aaron Read. Read heads one of Sacramento's top lobbying firms, representing police and firefighters unions. Police officers and firefighters are featured prominently in the No-on-87 campaign opposing the $4-billion oil tax.

The endorsements include public appearances, news conferences, television commercials and mass mailings. Campaigns pay for the testimonials because they work.

"In the marketplace, consumers can get bamboozled in every direction," said Elisa Odabashian, West Coast director of Consumers Union, a nonpartisan nonprofit corporation. "Unfortunately, the initiative process is a marketplace. It has become no different than selling a drug or a car. The idea is the product, and somebody is paying for it."

The price that campaigns are willing to pay became apparent to Los Angeles actor Rico Simonini. Like most actors, he has a side job, but not as a waiter. He is Dr. Americo Simonini, a Beverly Hills cardiologist with privileges at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.

When a casting call went out for a doctor-actor to read a commercial, Simonini auditioned and the producers liked what they saw. But then Simonini realized what he'd be doing: siding with the tobacco industry.

Like many healthcare experts, Simonini believes the tobacco tax, being pushed mainly by hospitals, would dissuade some people -- particularly children -- from smoking.

"I'm a cardiologist. I can't do this," Simonini said.

When he politely declined the work, he said he was told the $5,000 fee could double if the initiative's proponents could use his name and identify him as a physician. If the ad ran for the duration of the campaign, the pay would multiply accordingly.

Simonini still has student loans to repay. But it wasn't worth it.

"It would have been a feather for them to have a doctor come on board," Simonini said, but he felt there was no choice. "There are people working very cleverly to achieve their ends, to undermine what is good for us. Why? ... So much is at stake."

Frank Schubert, who is overseeing part of the No-on-86 campaign, said that although he has no idea how much money Simonini was offered, the campaign would have paid the doctor only a modest sum, for the time taken away from his patients.

Schubert added: "He would have had to have agreed with the script. We never got to that point."

The tobacco industry did find a physician: Dr. Patricia Austin, a Contra Costa County ophthalmologist who has butted heads with hospitals. She appeared gratis, taping the spot on a Saturday.

"If I'm willing to take the position, I need to stand up," Austin said.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has paid $16,043 to the Rev. Amos Brown, a prominent San Francisco preacher, Democrat and former San Francisco supervisor. Brown, who previously had been critical of Schwarzenegger, appears on radio commercials promoting the Republican incumbent's reelection.

"Amos Brown is endorsing this governor based on the governor's stand on the issues," campaign advisor Margaret Fortune said, citing Schwarzenegger's recent decision to sign a bill urging that the state divest holdings in Sudan.

Brown said he is "sick and tired" of Democrats taking African American voters for granted.

"I value my vote and vote my values," Brown said. Noting that he is a cleric, educator and a San Francisco housing commissioner, he added: "I do have some skills, and I do have a brain. If people want to use those skills, I don't see why there is brouhaha over it."

This year, like most years, the biggest checks are being written by initiative campaigns.

Police and firefighters have received more than $220,000 for being featured prominently in both the No-on-86 and No-on-87 campaigns. One reason may be that lobbyist Read represents many public safety unions.

One of his clients is the Peace Officers Research Assn. of California, a 58,000-member organization that is seen in the state Capitol as expert on police and public safety issues. It lobbies in Sacramento, often swaying lawmakers when it takes stands on bills -- as it did on at least 49 bills this year.

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