By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Now that Los Angeles has selected its first German-American mayor of the millennium and the postmortem reports are all in, can we perhaps finally move beyond this recent election to something else? You’d think so, but not so fast there.
It’s tempting, for instance, to speculate about what awaits us in the inside stickball game that is the first contended City Council presidency contest in 14 years. Will it be Council Member Ruth Galanter, Cindy Miscikowski or Nick Pacheco, in that order of plausibility? Or might one of the five (six, if you include Ed Reyes, who won a majority in the primary) newcomers pull off a wild-card coup? Well, stay tuned, we’ll get around to it, but no one knows just yet.
But one odd piece of jetsam left over from the election madness didn’t surface until just last week. This was the disclosure of a very dismal piece of campaign profiteering by Congresswoman Maxine Waters — one of the region’s most favorably regarded elected officials. The details of this story take us into the culture of the lowly slate mailer, by itself one of the least popular of our local democratic institutions. You know what I mean — the glowing piece of folded slick paper that shows up in your mailbox shortly before the election, bearing the Kodacolor faces of a bunch of candidates ostensibly pre-approved for your voting pleasure. These are usually presented by some respectable-sounding entity called something reputable if not recognizable. The Committee for a Fair Share for Everyone, for instance. These mailers usually try as best they can to look like some form or another of an official endorsement.
As it happens, however, a lot of the listees on these mailers paid to get there (legally, the paying candidates’ names are supposed to appear with an accompanying asterisk). And as it happens, running slate mailers is a tough game, which, at its best, shades into the shifty. But there is big money in it simply because there is big money in getting people elected. Of course a lot of these mailers never make it further than the recipient’s recycling dumpster. Yet Waters’ mailer, called “Progressive Connections,” is unusually powerful, both because it’s backed by her considerable reputation and because it targets Los Angeles’ African-American voters — in and out of her district. So when it suddenly switched its support from city-attorney candidate and Councilman Mike Feuer to Deputy Mayor Rocky Delgadillo last month, the unsurprising result was a big swerve in its recipients’ voting pattern: The inner-city districts where Feuer had evenly split with Delgadillo in the primary went 65 percent for Rocky in the runoff. This may or may not have been enough votes to lose Feuer the election. But the hit sure didn’t help him win it.
“It’s profoundly difficult [for the slate-mail operator] to switch candidates in the middle of a campaign,” one 20-year-veteran slate-mailer pro told me. For one thing, there’s credibility: What can a mailer-provider claim to have found out about a candidate that would cause such a switch? (Actually, one of the secret strengths of such mailers is their unaccountability.) But, as Daily Journal reporter Gina Keating disclosed last week, what Waters’ mailer staff apparently found out about Feuer was that he couldn’t come up with the extra money they were asking from him if he wanted to stay on the mailer. Feuer got on the first, primary mailer for $10,000. He was then asked for $25,000 to get into round two. Feuer’s people offered $15,000, and the next thing you knew, the better-funded Delgadillo’s people ponied up $35,000 to replace the councilman on the Waters slate-mailer roster. (Delgadillo’s people have insisted that the Waters mailer decision had to do with policy differences, not the money, but they didn’t say which differences emerged so late in the day.)
So it would appear that, in this specific case, the election was really for sale. And, in a sense, sold. But this appears not to have been the only runoff race in which Waters’ mailerites tried to pull a shakedown. In at least one other city-election race, Waters also tried to put on the bite for a five-figure enhancement from the leading candidate, who asked not to be identified (it turns out that few, if any, politicians want to rankle Maxine Waters). That candidate, however, refused to be hustled. The Waters people then took their money from the candidate’s opponent, who (one wants to say “justly”) lost.
The profits can be high, but campaign-mailer operations tend to be hole-and-corner, cottage-industry deals. Waters’ usually Democratic-leaning mailer is, typically, a family affair; it is now in the charge of her own daughter, Karen Waters. Not long ago, Progressive Connections’ mail products had, as such things go, a gilt-edged reputation. At one point, according to a source, Progressive Connections actually rejected the listing of a prominent Democratic candidate whose campaign TV ads had, in the congresswoman’s opinion, veered into racism.
Repeated calls to Progressive Connections and to Waters’ offices in Los Angeles and Washington were not returned. The mailer’s taintless reputation was Ă¢ seriously sullied for the first time in last year’s California presidential primary. What happened then was that a mailer went out under Progressive Connections’ rubric endorsing, of all people, Ralph Nader. Everyone in Waters’ staff said it was just a terrible mistake, sorry. But Al Gore’s forces were most certainly unamused. And other mailer pros were at that time seriously at a loss to guess how the blunder might have happened.