A coalition of oil interests, insurance companies, pharmaceutical firms and other business interests has poured at least $480,000 into a mail and television campaign to oppose one of the eight Democrats competing in the June 8 primary for an open Venice/South Bay Assembly seat.
Groups funded by the Civil Justice Assn. of California and two medical malpractice insurance organizations have spent the money to defeat Betsy Butler, a former fundraiser for two major environmental groups and the Consumer Attorneys of California.
The anti-Butler mailers started arriving in the strongly Democratic 53rd Assembly District about three weeks ago — before most of the candidates started sending their own campaign mail. Their timing and volume have dominated the crowded, competitive primary contest to succeed Assemblyman Ted Lieu (D-Torrance), who is termed out and running for attorney general.
Parke Skelton, Butler's campaign consultant, said he has never before seen "so much spent so early to oppose someone." He added that the Democratic primary "has been totally overwhelmed" by the corporate interests' blitz.
"They understand this is a Democratic seat, and they want to make sure she isn't elected," he said.
John H. Sullivan, president of the association, which seeks to cut the numbers of "excessive and unwarranted" lawsuits, said his organization objects to candidates whose campaigns "have been heavily supported by plaintiffs' lawyers. In our experience, [they], if elected, do not show much independence when it comes to matters affecting litigation."
Sullivan said his organization's research showed that about $1 of every $4 Butler has received came from trial or consumer attorneys. Her role as a former fundraiser for the consumer lawyers group "shows she already has been a part of the Sacramento money machine," he added. He said the coalition has not yet decided whether to support any of the other candidates.
The association, which has spent more than $180,000 to oppose Butler, lists among its 56 board members Altria (parent company of Philip Morris USA), Anthem Blue Cross, Apple Computer Inc., BP, the California Apartment Assn., ExxonMobil Corp., GlaxoSmithKline, Southern California Edison and State Farm Insurance Cos.
Two other committees involved in the campaign against Butler represent medical malpractice insurance interests: California Allied for Patient Protection (which has spent $148,522) and the Cooperative of American Physicians (which has spent $150,000).
One of the mailers features a shark, labeled "lobbyist," swimming beneath the state Capitol. The mailer claims, among other things, that "Betsy Butler has accepted thousands of dollars from lobbyists representing big oil, drug and insurance companies."
Skelton called that statement "a flat-out lie," and said Butler has accepted "not one cent" from lobbyists. Candidates are prohibited by state law from accepting contributions from lobbyists registered in California.
When asked to back up its claims, the association provided a list of eight people who contributed a total of $2,500 to Butler. Some were registered as recently as 2009 as lobbyists in Washington, and one was a lobbyist with the city and county of Los Angeles. None appeared on the Secretary of State's current list of state government lobbyists.
In a mailer to counter the association's claims, the Butler campaign tried to knock down the "lobbyist" label. It described James Bilbray, for example, who registered with the federal government to represent Nevada interests, as a former Nevada congressman "with no interests in California" and the father of Butler's best friend. Bilbray gave Butler $500.
Among the other Democrats in the race are Kate Anderson, an attorney and former aide to Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Beverly Hills); Nick Karno, a prosecutor for the city of Los Angeles and an environmental advocate; James Lau, an environmental education director and a local Democratic Party activist; Edgar Saenz, an attorney and an aide to Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles) and Manhattan Beach Mayor Mitch Ward, the only candidate who has held elected office. All have raised or spent at least $50,000 on their campaigns, according to records on file with the state.
In addition, attorney/businessman/educator Peter Luke Thottam and educator Diane M. Wallace will be on the Democratic ballot.
Republican Nathan Mintz, Green Party member Lisa Ann Green and Libertarian Ethan Musulin are unopposed for their respective parties' nomination and will appear on the November runoff ballot.