By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
By Dennis Romero
Yet unlike Nunez, in the bizarre fuzzy math Kaufman and others built into Prop. 93, Don Perata, the Democratic leader of the state Senate, would have remained a lame duck. He's been a senator for two and a half terms, entering the Senate from the Assembly in 1998 to fill out the remaining half-term of a departed Democrat. The math could give a voter a headache, if any of them were paying attention, but suffice it to say that Perata's 12 already-served years would, under Prop. 93, have barred him from running again.
But not so fast! That's where Kaufman and other operatives did their most creative work, after realizing they were helping one-third of the Legislature to blow past term limits, but had cut out Senate leader Perata. Deep in the February 5 ballot measure is what can only be called the Perata Special Rule, ultra-fine-print affecting one guy among almost 38 million Californians. Under the special rule, the extra half-term Perata served in the Senate simply would not be counted, allowing him to run again, along with his pals.
"If Nunez and Perata weren't being termed out, this wouldn't have been on the ballot," says term-limits advocate Kevin Spillane, a political consultant who is leading the anti-93 campaign. "It's been a corrupt process from the very beginning. This is all about very selective language to get voters to do the exact opposite."
Emboldened by the voter confusion, Nunez and Perata are directly overseeing a money-drenched push to buy themselves this extra time in power: The two most active political action committees financing it are controlled by Nunez's and Perata's political consultants, Kaufman and Sandi Polka, respectively.
How much money are Nunez and Perata raking in for their career-lengthening bids? In August, Nunez asked each of the state Assembly's 47 elected Democrats to donate $50,000. At least eight Assembly Democrats — all beneficiaries if their six-year Assembly tenures are doubled — have given between $15,000 and $70,000.
The deepest pockets, writing checks ranging from $100,000 to $500,000, are the entrenched insider lobbying groups in Sacramento — Southern California Edison, the California Teachers Association, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, and the super-rich Pala Band of Mission Indians — or what pro–Prop. 93 campaign spokesman Richard Stapler, without irony, calls "organizations that understand good public policy can only be enacted with good, experienced legislators."
"What we've found is that almost all the lobbyists in Sacramento are against term limits," says Bob Stern of the Center for Governmental Studies. Term limits, he says, create unpredictability because they force out legislators with whom lobbyists have often invested thousands of hours and millions of dollars "educating."
By year's end, the combined "Yes on Prop. 93" campaigns raised more than $7 million, and a flurry of contributions so far this year has pushed the figure upward of $10 million.
GROUPS FIGHTING THE SOFTENING of term limits seem to have more varied motivations — but they oversee a campaign war chest at least as large as their opponents'. Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner, a Republican, gave $1.5 million from his family trust. The California Correctional Peace Officers Association has given $1 million. The biggest single opponent, though, is U.S. Term Limits Inc.
The nonprofit has fiercely guarded its contributors from public scrutiny, but its most prominent donor is libertarian Howard Rich, a Manhattan real estate developer who spends millions backing his pet projects — restraining state spending, curbing eminent domain, promoting public school competition and, above all, tightening legislators' terms.
"[U.S. Term Limits Inc.] is strongly antigovernment," Stern says. "They want tons of turnover — weak legislators — and I think their goals are sincere. But Poizner is different. This is about giving him a leg-up on the  Republican nomination [for governor]. He wants to be the face of this. It's another feather in the fight for the nomination."
One of the anti–Prop. 93 camp's greatest obstacles on February 5 is Attorney General Brown. When voters elected Brown as the state's top attorney in 2006, few probably realized he would also be the state's official ballot wordsmith.
Before Brown settled on the title "Limits on Legislators' Terms in Office," and the official ballot summary explaining the measure, pollsters already knew that California voters were "highly sensitive" to the phrasing. Last April, Phil Trounstine, director of the Survey and Policy Research Institute at San Jose State University, wrote, "Voters like term limits. If they see this measure as a way for legislators to lengthen their terms, it's likely to fail. If they see the measure as a further limit on legislative terms, it stands a chance of passing."
It all came down to how the message got spun. Soon after, Brown chose a ballot title and summary that almost identically mirrored the wording suggested by the Kaufman and Nunez camp. The emphasis in the first sentence — where Trounstine says California voters get their cues — is clear: "Reduces the total amount of time a person may serve..."
"I don't think [the attorney general] was disingenuous, I just think it's favorable to the proponents," Trounstine says.
U.S. Term Limits Inc. sued Brown, arguing that he had failed to choose an accurate title and summary as required under California law, but the case went nowhere. Pollster Baldassare says of the dueling descriptions that each side sought, "I wouldn't say any of them are inaccurate, I would just say they emphasize different things."