Two years ago, when Californians were voting on an initiative that would have trimmed prison time for nonviolent drug offenders, Bob Wilson, a wealthy New York City investor, spent $2.8 million on the ultimately unsuccessful campaign to get it passed.
Wilson would seem a likely sugar daddy for Proposition 19, the marijuana legalization initiative on the November ballot. He has been giving away much of his fortune, more than $500 million so far, and he believes that pot, which he tried but didn't much like, ought to be legal.
"There's no intellectual argument whatever for not legalizing it," Wilson said. "People who get stoned do much less damage to themselves and others than people who get drunk."
Wilson has kept an eye on the initiative, but he doesn't plan to send a check. The polls, he said, don't look good. He thinks Richard Lee, the sponsor, should have waited until 2012. And, after Proposition 5 was trounced in 2008, he no longer trusts the state's voters to be progressive trendsetters.
"I'm going to let Californians stew in their own juice," he said.
Wilson is not alone in holding back. Despite the measure's potential to inspire copycat initiatives, it has attracted few big-money supporters. This contrasts sharply with previous drug-related initiatives, which began the election year with major contributions. Notably missing is George Soros, the hedge-fund multibillionaire who has invested about $3 million to liberalize California's drug laws.
"I think they are just waiting," said Lee, who acknowledged that the poll numbers may have made them wary. "I've got to do a better job of showing them this is different."
Lee remains by far the campaign's biggest donor. He gave $1.5 million of the $1.9 million raised through June, according to the most recent finance reports. Lee, who has joked that he's no longer a millionaire, donated $45,000 in the three months ending in June. Fundraising from other sources is picking up, but not at the pace Lee needs to reach the $10 million needed for a significant television campaign.
Lee and his allies remain hopeful that six-figure checks will roll in, but they also have plans to run a less expensive grassroots campaign. They believe they can win by persuading the narrow slice of undecided voters, primarily mothers with school-aged children, and turning out pro-legalization young voters. Lee also notes the initiative is getting extensive free nationwide media coverage.
But when Proposition 215, the pathbreaking medical marijuana initiative, was on the ballot in 1996, wealthy supporters, mostly from out of state, gave early and often. Midway through the election year, Soros; Peter Lewis, head of an Ohio-based insurance company; John Sperling, founder of the University of Phoenix; and George Zimmer, founder and chief executive officer of Men's Wearhouse, had already donated and loaned a total of almost $1 million.
Four years later, Soros, Lewis and Sperling split a $1 million contribution to kick off Proposition 36, which replaced prison time with drug treatment for some nonviolent crimes.
The campaign for Proposition 5, a drug-sentencing reform measure, had raised $3.4 million by June 2008 from Soros; Sperling; Wilson; Jacob Goldfield, a New York investor; and Irwin Mark Jacobs, a founder of Qualcomm, the San Diego-based telecommuncations giant.
Only Zimmer has donated to Proposition 19. A spokesman said he would not discuss his $20,500 contribution. Soros, Lewis and Sperling could not be reached. Goldfield declined to comment.
Jacobs, who said he has never used illegal drugs, said he has been too busy to look at Proposition 19 but believes marijuana should be decriminalized. "I have certainly not opted out," he said. "We've taken one approach for years and years, and it just hasn't worked."
The initiative's opponents are not yet a financial threat, but "no" campaigns typically start slowly. By June, the campaign had raised $41,100 from five donors. "We just started," said Andrew Acosta, a spokesman, "so I would assume that the more groups we talk to, things are going to start looking up for us."
Opposition campaigns have attracted few big donors — except Proposition 5, which drew $1 million from the prison guards' union and $250,000 each from A. Jerrold Perenchio, the former head of Univision, and Meg Whitman, the former Ebay executive who is now bankrolling a multimillion-dollar race for governor.
Soros and most other major donors to the California initiatives are supporters of the Drug Policy Alliance, a prominent advocacy group and a force behind the previous measures. Like the other pro-legalization groups, the alliance wanted to aim an initiative for 2012, when the presidential election would draw more liberal voters. That would also have given its donors four years to recover from a dispiriting loss.