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Unions' political funding raises fears

$8.5 million collected to aid Ridley-Thomas could set a precedent for special interests, some officials believe.

October 26, 2008|David Zahniser | Zahniser is a Times staff writer.

Three years ago, campaign finance experts watched with alarm as one-fifth of the money raised on behalf of Los Angeles mayoral candidate Antonio Villaraigosa came from "independent expenditures," special interests with no limits on how much they could collect and spend.

The numbers were even more jaw-dropping for Villaraigosa's opponent, then-Mayor James K. Hahn. Although he lost his bid for a second term, Hahn saw one-third of his financial backing, or $2 million, come from such groups.

But those amounts look tame compared to the $8.5 million amassed so far this year by an array of labor unions seeking to elect state Sen. Mark Ridley-Thomas to the county Board of Supervisors on Nov. 4. For every $1 raised by Ridley-Thomas, those unions have raised nearly $9 for a separate campaign on his behalf, according to fundraising reports.

The change has not gone unnoticed by other city and county politicians, who fear the supervisorial election will establish a new precedent, inspiring real estate developers, billboard companies, employee unions and other special interests to pursue a similar strategy in future campaigns.

"It's out-and-out buying an election," said Supervisor Gloria Molina, who has endorsed Ridley-Thomas' opponent, City Council member Bernard Parks.

"If the special interests see this as being successful, there's no telling how far it will go, and it will be much easier for candidates to submit to special interests instead of going out, working hard and raising [their own] money," she said.

Molina predicted that she would be the next target of a union independent expenditure campaign when she comes up for reelection in 2010. Meanwhile, one veteran Los Angeles lobbyist marveled at the sheer size of the union campaign, calling it "off-the-charts extraordinary."

"Other than governor, I don't know that there are statewide candidates that spend that much," said lobbyist Steve Afriat.

Ridley-Thomas said Parks and his supporters are simply upset that they failed to secure the backing of the county's powerful Federation of Labor, known for its ability to win elections. And he defended the current campaign arrangement, saying he is following all laws that apply to outside campaign groups.

"It's appropriate. It's fair. It's legal," he said. "And the only reason they're criticizing it is because they don't have this level of support."

The Alliance for a Stronger Community, a union coalition, has raised the vast majority of independent expenditures for Ridley-Thomas, whose own campaign must adhere to the city's rules limiting donations to no more than $1,000 per contributor per election cycle. In return for having the ability to raise unlimited amounts, independent committees are legally prohibited from coordinating with the candidates they support.

Independent expenditures came into being in the mid-1970s after Congress passed a law placing a $1,000 limit on campaign contributions. In 1976, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the limits on individuals and groups spending independently on behalf of candidates, saying they violated donors' constitutionally protected right to free speech.

The first significant independent expenditures appeared in 1980, when the National Conservative Political Action Committee and the Fund for a Conservative Majority spent more than $10 million on behalf of President Reagan.

Five years later, the Supreme Court ruled again, saying that any effort to limit spending by such groups would violate the 1st Amendment.

In Los Angeles, such groups began to play a significant role in 2001, when term limits created 10 competitive city government races. At the top of the ticket, labor threw its weight behind Villaraigosa, and Indian gaming interests financed some of the nastiest attacks of the campaign on behalf of Hahn.

Two years later, independent expenditure groups contributed $1 for every $1 raised by the City Council campaign of Martin Ludlow, a union activist. Ludlow won the seat but left in 2005 to run the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor. While serving in that role, he was convicted on charges that he illegally took union contributions while running for council that exceeded the spending limits.

In most city races, independent expenditures essentially ran a secondary campaign, one that represented a fraction of the efforts by a candidate.

This year's county contest reverses that equation, with independent expenditures dominating the race and Ridley-Thomas' campaign looking like a bit player.

So far this year, the labor coalition has used its largesse to hire researchers, send campaign mailers, erect campaign signs, purchase full-page newspaper ads, reserve radio advertising time and develop 30-second television spots in English and Spanish for Ridley-Thomas, none of which can be coordinated by the candidate.

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