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
Although the CRA is powerful and wealthy, controlling a $586 million annual budget, Dantona complains: "We can't get businesses money for equipment or capital improvement if they're half a street over, the next block over or a mile away from a project area."
It's quite inconvenient, in fact. It's utterly illegal.
Earlier this month, Fuentes won re-election handily to his second — and final — Assembly term, with 79 percent of the vote, in a gerrymandered district where he could not lose. He was helped by $462,108.50 that flowed to his campaign from organizations representing the banking giant JPMorgan Chase & Co. PAC of Chicago and California police. If he later sponsors a bill written by people from among those organizations, what will that say?
Fuentes explains, "I don't just put my name on a bill and present it. All these bills I presented, I authored. I don't take pen to paper myself. I rely on committee staff, consultants and legislative counsel. My strength is taking ideas and making them better. I'd be wary of a legislator who took pen to paper by themselves. You need a lot of folks."
That's political-speak for justifying Sacramento's unwritten pay-to-play system, says California Voter Foundation founder and president Kim Alexander, a fourth-generation Angeleno whose first foray into Sacramento politics came in 1989.
Twenty-one years later, Alexander says, the link between money and legislative power is stronger than ever.
"A lot of people are surprised by this kind of access," she says. "I don't know how to answer whether it's corruption or not. Or whether it's right or wrong. The legislative process is dependent on money to fuel it. The fact is you can't get a bill passed without money, and there is no power without it. ... It frustrates the public. If you don't have money, you don't have a voice."
But James Lee, the former Wilson press secretary who now runs Lee Strategy Group in L.A., says you can't lay all the blame on Fuentes and his cohorts. The nature of the lawmaking game in Sacramento was turned topsy-turvy 18 years ago, Lee says, when voters approved term limits.
"Term limits have had a profound effect on sausage-making in the legislature," Lee says. "If in, say, six years you introduce hundreds of bills, you're seen as someone who can get things done."
Fuentes gets things done, all right.
Back in July, the Mercury News wrote, "Beginning in 2007, Fuentes introduced 10 bills that had been crafted and pushed by those lobbyists — one of the highest totals of any legislator. ... In the years since, he has reaped tens of thousands of dollars in campaign money from bill sponsors, won re-election and snagged plum appointments to Assembly committees."
Legislators who front for the ghostwriters pass themselves off as high-achieving lawmakers — an image that's allowed to stand by the mostly silent Sacramento press corps. But behind the scenes, these private groups are authoring intricate laws about themselves. "Entire regulatory issues are put up for sale," Lee says.
Fuentes' prolific bill-fronting is fueled by yet another problem, according to Lee. With a 66 percent supermajority needed to pass a budget, he notes, stalemates are "brutal, brutal." To get 27 out of 40 votes in the Senate and 54 votes from the Assembly, he says, legislators will take help from any organization with enough staff to provide it.
On Nov. 2, voters passed Proposition 25 and did away with the supermajority to pass a California budget. Now, the Democrats in Sacramento can pass a budget with a simple majority vote, taking away one of the key pressure points.
But Fuentes doesn't plan to tone it down. He'll keep putting his name on California laws ghostwritten by special-interest groups from whom he takes big sums of money.
As long as he and the groups involved both report the donations, even if those links are publicized only by the occasional digging of a journalist like Karen de Sa, he says he's doing right by serving and protecting his constituents.
There's no irony in his voice as Fuentes paraphrases the slogan of a major U.S. corporation: "There's no monopoly on good ideas," he says. "I'm like 3M. I can take things and make them better."
Contact the writer at firstname.lastname@example.org.