Special-Interest Spending Takes Off

By Shane Goldmacher

The deluge of independent spending by special interest groups keen on swaying the makeup of the Legislature has begun, as well-heeled groups have showered nearly $1 million in the last week on their favored legislative candidates.

And that is only the beginning.

"Independent expenditure" campaigns are outside the control of the Democrats and Republicans running for state Assembly and Senate.

They are an outgrowth of voter-approved caps on direct contributions that those same interests can make to the candidates themselves. Unable to give as much as they want directly, Sacramento's wealthiest interests have set up independent committees for political campaigns.

Tim Clark, a Republican political consultant who works on candidate campaigns, is no fan of independent expenditures, describing them as "kind of like pirates: They sail up next to you, board your ship, do what they're going to do and get out of there."

Clark would prefer the state eliminate limits on direct contributions to candidates.

But voters etched those limits into law - currently $3,600 per election - in 2000, when they passed Proposition 34.

In the eight years since, roughly $100 million has flowed through independent committees, according to campaign reports.

So far this fall, the trial lawyers, nurses and environmentalists have spent more than $170,000 in support of Democratic Senate candidate Hannah-Beth Jackson, a former assemblywoman locked in a tight contest with former GOP Assemblyman Tony Strickland.

The California Dental Association has spent $200,000 trying to elect Republican John McCann, who is running to replace termed-out GOP Assemblywoman Shirley Horton, R-San Diego. Business groups that make up the Civil Justice Association of California - the counterweight to the state's trial lawyers association - have spent another $30,000 on McCann's candidacy.

And it is still more than four weeks until Election Day.

The Fair Political Practices Commission, the state's campaign watchdog agency, is pressing for greater disclosure of the spending.

In a 2008 report, the agency called the growth of independent expenditures "an orgy of spending...that has thwarted the will of the people, dramatically undermined California's campaign finance laws and doubtlessly influence the outcome of numerous statewide and legislative elections."

The biggest beneficiary of independent spending thus far is Joan Buchannan, a Democratic member of the San Ramon Valley School Board running to replace GOP Assemblyman Guy Houston of San Ramon. Her opponent is San Ramon Mayor Abram Wilson.

Buchanan has benefited from $256,000 in spending from the Opportunity PAC, a coalition that includes SEIU, the California Federation of Teachers and the California Teachers Association.

Opportunity PAC has already spent $71,000 supporting Alyson Huber, the Democrat trying to win the seat of termed-out Assemblyman Alan Nakanishi. And another $72,000 has gone to support Manuel Perez, another Democrat running in a GOP-held seat, that of termed-out Assemblywoman Bonnie Garcia of Cathedral City.

The California Apartment Association, meanwhile, has spent $22,000 in support of Republican Assembly candidate Danny Gilmore, who is seeking the Central Valley seat of termed-out Democratic Assemblywoman Nicole Parra.

See the article on Sacramento Bee website

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