Free-Spending Special Interests Exert Big Influence

By Phillip Matier and Andrew Ross

The biggest players in Tuesday's election weren't the Democratic or Republican parties or even the candidates themselves -- but rather some special-interest groups working under the cover of mercenary-like independent expenditure committees.

The secretary of state's office still hasn't tallied all the spending, but so far it has identified hundreds of committees that registered in recent months with the goal of supporting or tearing down candidates and causes that went before voters Tuesday.

Political operatives describe a surge in independent spending, fueled partly by the new $22,300 limit on individual contributions to candidates in statewide races.

When it comes to independent expenditure committees -- which by law must operate without any coordination with a candidate or initiative campaign -- contributors can give to their heart's content.

And those committees can take on names that disguise their true identities.

Down in Los Angeles, for example, a group called the African American Political Empowerment Committee sent out a mailer attacking Board of Equalization candidate Judy Chu for supposedly taking more than $250,000 from "big tobacco, HMOs and drug companies.''

In true Machiavellian style, it turns out that the African American Political Empowerment Committee gets some of its money from big tobacco interests -- namely, Altria Corp. (which owns Philip Morris) and Lorillard Tobacco Co.

In the East Bay, the California Senior Advocates League political action committee spent $21,000 to send out a last-minute mailer on behalf of John Dutra in his race against Ellen Corbett for the Democratic nomination in the state Senate 10th District.

California Senior Advocates, it turns out, is funded by Farmers Insurance and porn king Larry Flynt's Hustler Casino in Southern California.

The Dutra-Corbett slugfest, in fact, could wind up being the most expensive state Senate primary in California history -- thanks to the work of independent committees representing "progressives" (teachers, nurses, public employees and consumer lawyers), which lined up behind Corbett, and the "moderates" (real estate agents, auto dealers, utilities, insurance and tobacco interests) that backed Dutra.

The cash flowing into the race from independent committees could top $2 million by the time the counting is done.

It was one of several Democratic Senate primaries up and down the state where business groups got into the act on behalf of one candidate, and unions and lawyers gave a push to the other. For that you can thank reapportionment, which largely divvied up the state into "safe'' Democratic and Republican seats.

"In many cases you are seeing businesses that want to elect Republicans and can't, so they are trying to elect moderate Democrats instead,'' said Robert Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies, a nonpartisan campaign finance research group.

"Of course, labor and trial lawyers are opposing that,'' Stern added, "so you have two factions fighting over the soul of the party.''

Sometimes the money is just a way for individuals to flex their muscle -- or egos.

Mega-millionaire Sacramento developer Angelo Tsakopoulos was the primary season's biggest "special interest." His family steered an eye-bulging $9 million into an independent campaign on behalf of his former business partner and fellow Greek American Phil Angelides' run for governor.

In San Francisco, District 12 Assembly candidate Fiona Ma got $900,000 in independent money for her race against Janet Reilly. That included $617,000 from Leaders for an Effective Government, a little-known committee that was funded years ago by former state Senate President Pro Tem John Burton -- Ma's ex-boss.

Other times, the money seemed to move by osmosis.

Californians United, a committee that includes donors historically allied with state Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata, D-Oakland, pumped more than a half-million dollars into races up and down the state, including $78,000 to Southern California Senate candidate Lou Correa in his Democratic primary race against Tom Umberg. Oakland mayoral candidate and Perata ally Ignacio De La Fuente got a $10,000 boost, and nearly $6,300 went to help Oakland Assembly candidate Sandre Swanson.

Perata has no official connection with Californians United, but political consultant Sandra Polka works with both Perata and Californians United.

In fact, it's the consultants in most of these independent efforts -- not the politicians -- who are making the calls on how the money is spent.

At times, the interests work in concert -- as in the multimillion-dollar campaign they waged against Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's special-election measures last year.

In other races, they may be on opposite sides. But no hard feelings -- after all, everyone is a professional.

For the special interests and their consultants, the lure of the independent campaigns has proved to be irresistible. The consultants aren't hampered by spending limits, they can move money around mid-campaign to get the biggest bang for their clients, they make a ton of cash -- and because they must operate separately from campaigns, they don't have to put up with a whiny candidate.

Still, in the end, said candidate owes a debt of gratitude.

Some things, it seems, never change.

See the article on San Francisco Chronicle website

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