The Legacy of California’s Special Election

By Lynn Davidson, Commentary

I am not sure what the final accounting will be, but I have seen credible reports that the special election that most Californians didn’t want cost upwards of $300 million, about $50 million that the state spent putting on the show and at least $250 million in private money for or against the propositions. Not one child got educated, not one person received health care, not one solar roof was installed â€"- in short, no services were provided by this incredible waste of money.

And we have the 2006 gubernatorial and legislative shopping sprees to look forward to. In 2002, Gray Davis spent almost $78 million on his gubernatorial campaign, setting a new record for the most ever spent by a candidate in a non-presidential campaign. It looks like that record has now been broken by billionaire Mayor Bloomberg, who spent $100 million of his own money on his re-election campaign for Mayor of New York, but I feel confident that California will regain the record for most dollars down the drain once the 2006 campaign really gets underway.

When Schwarzenegger complained that deep-pocketed special interests controlled California politics, his message resonated with a lot of people, which enabled him oust Davis in the recall election, but now Schwarzenegger has shown that he can raise money with the best of them, so the problem is worse than ever. Candidates, unless they are rich themselves, need rich donors to finance their election campaigns, and then they are accountable to the interests who “brung them.†This explains why normal Californians don’t get support for the kinds of things they want from Sacramento -â€" access to health care, public transportation, reduced emissions, quality education, investment in our crumbling infrastructure. The energy companies, big ag, pharmaceutical companies, HMOs, insurance, real estate developers don’t want what your average Californian wants, and they are the ones who fund the lawmakers’ campaigns.

It doesn’t have to be this way, and in fact it isn’t this way in Arizona and Maine, two states that have full public funding for election campaigns for statewide and legislative offices. The buzz word for a system of full public financing for election campaigns is Clean Money. In 1996, Maine became the first state ever to pass Clean Money for candidates for state office and now, almost 80 percent of the Maine state legislature consists of representatives who ran “clean.†In Arizona in 2002, 10 out of 11 of Arizona’s statewide offices are held by candidates who ran “clean.†Maine and Arizona have balanced budgets. They have more seats being contested, compared to the days before they had Clean Money, and they have more women and minorities running for office. Maine recently passed a version of universal health care, which had been impossible before Clean Money reduced the influence of the insurance lobby.

Our own Assemblywoman Loni Hancock has introduced a Clean Money bill into the California State Assembly â€"- AB 583 -â€" which will be voted in this January. Hancock’s bill is modeled on the Maine and Arizona systems, and this is how it works. To qualify for public funding, candidates must show a broad base of support by gathering a specified number of $5 contributions and signatures from residents in the district they are running in, agree to strict spending limits, and forego any private campaign funding. The number of signatures depends on the office, from 500 for an Assembly seat up to 25,000 for governor. The system is voluntary; in other words a candidate can choose to run with public financing or not. In cases where non-participating (unclean) candidates or attack ads by outside groups exceed Clean Money expenditure limits, the state provides ample additional public funds to Clean Money candidates so they can respond immediately.

There are Clean Money campaigns in just about every state, and a lot of cities are adopting Clean Money for municipal elections. Portland, Oregon and Albuquerque, New Mexico have Clean Money, and just this week, by a unanimous 11-0 vote, the Los Angeles City Council passed a resolution instructing the city’s chief legislative analyst to generate a Clean Money proposal for the City of Los Angeles.

Lest you still be basking in the defeat of the propositions last week and thinking that private campaign financing isn’t always so bad, keep in mind that working people aren’t going to be able to keep up the level of campaign funding that we just witnessed. In the long run, unions will never be able to outspend the corporations, and in fact they rarely do. Private campaign financing is just a bad system that makes elected officials accountable to corporate donors instead of to the voters. Let’s replace it with Clean Money and then we will start to see some real progress in Sacramento.

Lynn Davidson is a Berkeley resident and a volunteer with the California Clean Money Campaign. For more information about Clean Money, see

See the article on Berkeley Daily Planet website

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