Legally Corrupt

Phil Angelides has said he supports public financing of elections. Now he, and the rest of the California Democratic Party, have a chance to put their mouth where their money has been. The California Nurses Association, working with the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, has formally qualified a clean-money ballot initiative for the November election.

If voters approve it, California’s system will be similar to that of Maine and Arizona, in which candidates who refuse private contributions — other than $5 seed-money donations — will be provided full public funding for their campaigns. Even better, revenue from the system would come not from general funds, but rather from a slight increase in the corporate tax. Further, the clean-money system would provide candidates with funding to offset so-called independent-expenditure campaigns. These are the virtually unregulated spending spasms offered by outsiders in support of a given candidate, like the Chamber of Commerce bankrolling pro-Arnold campaigning and the wealthy Tsakopoulos family underwriting Angelides’ advertising.

The ballot initiative has also won the endorsements of the California Clean Money Campaign as well as the leading national advocate of comprehensive campaign-finance reform, Public Campaign. In other words, Californians finally have within their reach the power to stick a cork in the gushing pipeline of special-interest influence in state campaigns. And the same voters who had to be dragged sedated and in chains to cast a vote in the recent and totally money-marinated primary enthusiastically snapped to life to support the clean-money push. Initiative organizers say they gathered the necessary 620,000 qualifying signatures during just five weeks of solicitation — and from across partisan lines.

So will Phil, whose campaign is already faltering and scurrying behind the Governator’s, come out and boldly endorse the clean-money initiative? Will the Democratic Party machine that cranked out squads of phone bankers and door knockers for Angelides in the primary now put its muscle behind an initiative that will finally crimp the role of Big Money in state politics? Will Democrats be willing to support a measure that blocks the flow of both corporate and union funding into the electoral system? Or, better put, will Pope Benedict demand that his young nephews have bar mitzvahs?

All of the above outcomes are equally likely. The Democrats, as we know, bitch and moan about the lavish amounts of cash that, say, Arnold Schwarzenegger can raise from wealthy special interests. But that’s only because they are jealous. Democrats also have their own deep pools of special-interest funding from Hollywood, the high-tech industry and unions, or, in Angelides’ case, a more traditional base of developers. These sources provide piles of cash, but usually not quite as much as Republicans can stack up.

So while naive liberals might now be expecting Phil and the party to throw their weight behind real campaign-finance reform, it’s more likely they’re about to learn that there really is no difference between the two parties on this issue. The fight around the November clean-money initiative promises to be a monumental battle between the entirety of the political establishment on the one hand, and the CNA and some consumer advocates on the other. We’ve seen this sort of sordid spectacle before, so why any shock? We saw Democrats gang up with Republicans in the recent past to defeat an energy re-regulation measure, as well as one for statewide universal health care.

Here comes the really bad news. Some sources report that the campaign against the initiative will be led by Democratic consultant Gale Kaufman, the same woman who engineered the $70 million union campaign — known as the Alliance for a Better California — last fall against Arnold’s packet of ballot initiatives. Apparently, this state would be a better place if we didn’t tamper with the current system, which blatantly legalizes corruption. Say it ain’t so, Gale. Kaufman’s office says she’s on vacation for two weeks and nobody else there could possibly know. Uh-huh.

Meanwhile, we learn, Governor Schwarzenegger last week had a closed-door meeting on this same issue. (For the record, the governor’s people deny that such meetings involved anyone outside the office, but hold open the possibility that such a discussion occurred with staff members.) The governor, apparently, is mulling over the possibility of endorsing the initiative. I have to suppose that, in the end, he won’t. But can you imagine the scenario? Democrats and union consultants lined up with the Chamber of Commerce to ensure the status quo while Arnold sides with his old enemies in the nurses union? Sounds like a movie to me.

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