Reporting from Sacramento — The issues and the special interests that pursued them in last month's primary election are familiar: Big oil, tobacco and insurance companies seeking armor against litigation and taxes; trial lawyers looking for more opportunities to sue; the state Chamber of Commerce working against proposals its members deem costly.
But even battle-hardened veterans of special-interest wars were alarmed by how some of California's most influential groups flooded a few small campaigns with money in an effort to achieve their goals.
Under innocuous umbrella names such as the California Alliance and Put California Back to Work, they poured more than $1 million into each of three contests for rank-and-file legislative seats — races that merely determined who would advance to the general election.
That's far more than legislative candidates normally spend on their own campaigns; in 2008, aspiring state lawmakers' campaign outlays averaged $405,000, according to the nonpartisan National Institute on Money and State Politics.
In one of the three, a state Senate district stretching through Riverside and San Diego counties, the interest groups set a record for a legislative primary by spending $2.9 million on a race between two Democrats. That sum was more than double what the two candidates shelled out.
The groups' spending "makes a mockery of the rules designed to create a level playing field," said Dan Schnur, chairman of the state Fair Political Practices Commission.
That's because their money didn't go directly to the candidates they favored, because such contributions are subject to strict limits. Instead, the cash went to outside political committees that are free to raise limitless sums as long as the candidates they support are not involved in the groups' efforts.
In districts where elections are close enough that an infusion of cash can sway the outcome, and where there are candidates aligned with the special interests' legislative agenda, the groups "feel it's worth pushing them over the top," said Tracy Westen, chief executive of the Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles. "It's an investment."
Voters may not have been aware that insurance companies, lawyers and other interests were calling most of the shots in the three campaigns.
The California Senior Advocates League, which paid for attack ads in two of the three contests, received money from JobsPAC, which is affiliated with the Chamber of Commerce, and Put California Back to Work, a committee sponsored by the Civil Justice Assn. of California. Both groups' members and contributors are mostly big corporations.
Doug Heller, executive director of the Santa Monica nonprofit Consumer Watchdog, said the league's name gives the impression that the candidates' support is coming from "an authentic campaign by seniors."
The league's money went to help candidates who included Juan Vargas, who battled Assemblywoman Mary Salas in the Democratic primary for the Senate seat in Riverside and San Diego counties.
Business executives might not normally back Democrats because of the perception that they cannot be counted on to hold the line against more taxes — and Vargas may not. But the demographics of the district suggest that a Democrat will win in November, and Vargas is an insurance company executive and former assemblyman who worked with the industry during his last stint at the Capitol to thwart what they considered excessive regulation.
Moreover, the business groups were determined to drive Salas, a liberal, out of the Legislature. She voted for two bills dubbed "climate change taxes" by the Chamber of Commerce. She also voted in favor of a measure allowing patients to sue health insurance firms that rescind coverage in certain ways.
Interest groups "track your votes, and if they don't like your voting record there is this threat that they are going to run this campaign against you," Salas said.
Vargas is leading the race; certification of the vote count is expected by Thursday.
Most of the $2.9 million that the interest groups spent on the contest went to oppose Salas and support Vargas. The contributing committees included Californians for Balance & Fairness in the Civil Justice System, another group created and controlled by the Civil Justice Assn. of California.
The association lobbies the Legislature against bills they believe would allow unreasonable lawsuits against its members, which include oil companies BP, ExxonMobil and Chevron; insurance firms AIG, Allstate, Farmers and State Farm; pharmaceutical giants Bristol-Myers Squibb and Bayer; and the tobacco firm Altria, which owns Philip Morris USA.
"Our political activity is aimed, as it has always been, at helping elect legislators who will bring more balance and fairness to the civil justice system," said John H. Sullivan, president of the Civil Justice Assn. of California.