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June 8, 2013
Another View: Fundraising ban would be gimmick, not solution

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(June 8 -- By Steven Maviglio, Special to The Bee)

What could possibly be wrong with banning political fundraising during the legislative session, as my friend, Republican spokesperson-turned-academic reformer Dan Schnur, proposed on May 30 ("Ban fundraising during legislative session")? Let me count the ways.

• It would create an uneven playing field for candidates.

Although there are notable exceptions, the candidate who spends the most usually wins. Under this proposal, incumbent candidates would be unable to raise a penny for most of their terms for 23 of the 24 months before voting begins, while their challengers could raise unlimited funds. With the most competitive legislative campaigns now costing upward of $5 million, such a ban would put incumbents at a huge disadvantage.

• It would give millionaire candidates a leg up.

Steve Poizner, for example, spent millions to try to win an open Assembly seat a few years ago. Had his opponent been an incumbent, the legislator would have had just a few weeks to match those dollars. Fundraising bans invite more millionaires (incumbents and challengers) to run for office knowing they have a competitive advantage.

• It would result in more negative campaigning.

Opponents to sitting legislators could run advertisements bashing them for nearly 23 months - and the legislators would be unable to respond because they couldn't purchase ads (most TV ads require prepayment and need to be reserved in a station's schedule).

• It would mean less time talking about issues during a campaign.

With a year's worth of fundraising time squeezed into a couple of weeks before ballots are cast, candidates would end door-to-door campaigning, rallies and debates because they would be forced to spend all their time dialing for dollars just as voters focus on issues.

• It's unworkable for special elections.

In special elections, incumbent members of the Legislature run for other seats during the legislative session. Under this proposal, they'd be banned from fundraising. How would they compete?

• It doesn't make sense because of the legislative calendar.

The Legislature is full time. Although the session runs until October in odd-numbered years and until the end of September in even-numbered (election) years, the Legislature holds hearings outside of session days.

And the state budget is put together beginning in November.

• Ultimately it won't stop fundraising during the legislative session.

Even if checks weren't being written during the sessions themselves, you can bet that commitments would be made for fundraising long before then. Instead of reading stories about checks changing hands, we'd read about upcoming fundraising events that were planned during the waning days of the legislative session.

But perhaps the worst thing about this campaign reform gimmick is that it reinforces the cynical notion that money buys a legislator's votes in California. Yes, there's some kind of FBI investigation going on at the Capitol, but no one has been arrested, much less convicted. In New York, Illinois, and other states, headlines are filled with convictions of bribery. But not here.

Fifty years ago, former Assembly Speaker Jesse M. Unruh was famously quoted as saying, "If you can't drink their booze, take their money, sleep with their women and then vote against 'em, you don't belong in politics." That holds true today.

If Schnur was really interested in ending special-interest funding of political campaigns, he would call for an end of it year-round, not just for most of the year. I look forward to the time when ivory tower "reformers" spend less time bashing the Legislature, and more time advocating for public financing of our elections.

Steven Maviglio is a Sacramento-based Democratic political strategist who has worked for two Assembly speakers and former Gov. Gray Davis.

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