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Capitol awash in party politics

Legislators, lobbyists get ready for a week of fundraising before national conventions.

August 08, 2008|Nancy Vogel | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — After 5 p.m. this Tuesday, a political donor here may enjoy "cool drinks and smooth jazz," sample Hawaiian hors d'oeuvres, taste Central Coast pinot noir wines or, perhaps, he or she would prefer a Sacramento Rivercats baseball game.

In just four days next week, at least 40 politicians and candidates are scheduled to hold fundraisers, soliciting donations over cappuccino, carnitas and cocktails, at cafes, art galleries and restaurants. Most events are within a few blocks of the Capitol and require a minimum donation of $1,000 to attend.

Lobbyists -- whose clients' interests are on the line in the Legislature -- face so many opportunities to give to legislators' campaigns that some are plotting a schedule and mapping a route.

"You run from one to the other," said Craig Brown, a lobbyist who represents several law enforcement unions.

August is traditionally a busy Capitol fundraising month. But this year, the upcoming national political conventions have compressed the schedule. Assembly leaders say that they want to leave town by Aug. 22, rather than the scheduled Aug. 31. The earlier deadline gives them time to make it to the start of the Democrats' convention in Denver on Aug. 25 and the Republicans' convention in Minneapolis on Sept. 1.

The fundraising push in the next two weeks comes as legislators will be casting final votes on hundreds of bills affecting a broad range of issues such as how insurance companies operate and whether Californians must buy carbon monoxide detectors for their homes. Also under negotiation is the state's annual spending plan of more than $100 billion, which will dictate the funding of public schools and an array of state services, while potentially imposing taxes on the wealthy, corporations or consumers.

As the votes and fundraisers converge, the state's 120 legislators, roughly 1,200 registered lobbyists and myriad representatives of groups with a stake in state law will probably be keenly attuned to one another's interests.

Christina Lokke, policy advocate for California Common Cause, a group that advocates for taxpayer financing of political campaigns, said a political fundraising spree coinciding with so many important votes could help explain why polls show the public's lack of faith in the Legislature.

"Right now is such a key time in the Capitol, with hundreds of bills passing through," she said. "The public should be able to trust that lawmakers place an emphasis on deciding public policy and finalizing a budget."

Lawmakers say fundraising is an unavoidable part of state politics.

"Campaigns are expensive," said Assemblyman Dave Jones (D-Sacramento), who has a breakfast fundraiser at Pyramid Alehouse scheduled for Tuesday.

There's an etiquette to fundraising, lobbyists and legislators say. No talk of business, because doing so risks the appearance of quid pro quo. And lobbyists don't bring checks. The people who hire them mail the money either before or shortly after the fundraiser.

Most legislators face little or no opposition in the November election because their districts are drawn with a preponderance of either Democratic or Republican voters. So legislators are not usually raising money to print their own yard signs and mailers, but to improve their own standing among colleagues.

They donate to Senate and Assembly leaders, who then spend the money on the several races that are truly a tossup between Republicans and Democrats.

Assemblyman Chuck Calderon (D-Montebello), for example, faces a relatively unknown Republican opponent in November -- Carlos Getino -- in an overwhelmingly Democratic district.

Yet he is hosting a two-day "golf and spa getaway" next week at the St. Regis Resort on Monarch Beach in Dana Point with a minimum donation of $3,600. His fundraiser invitation promises "hosted lunches on carts, hosted drinks on the course and hosted caddy per foursome."

Calderon said he's raising money because "the speaker's going to be coming after us, and the implication is if you don't support Democrats, it'll affect your status in the house."

Calderon spent 16 years in the Legislature in the 1980s and 1990s and was reelected to the Assembly in 2006. He said the "dollar chase" is more frenzied since voters capped political donations in 2000.

When there were no limits, Calderon said, a legislator could collect all the money he needed with one or two fundraisers.

Now, he said, legislators hold several fundraisers through the year to try to get each donor to "max out," or give the maximum allowed under law, which is $3,600 for an individual and $7,200 for certain committees, often affiliated with unions, that have many small donors.

Asked why he chose Dana Point as a fundraiser setting rather than the usual Capitol watering holes, Calderon said that because he's asking for $3,600, rather than $1,000, "there's got to be some attraction to it."

"Put it this way," he said. "You'll get whoever you're going to get wherever you have it. But there's a big contingency out there -- we're talking about golfers -- they'll go back and work harder to convince their clients that they should attend."

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nancy.vogel@latimes.com

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