Editorial

Dirty recall campaign soils state's political watchdog

Politics can be a dirty business, and the campaign by Republicans to unseat Fullerton Democratic state Sen. Josh Newman is about as muddy as it gets.

The GOP targeted the freshman senator ostensibly because he voted for the package of taxes and fees to fund transportation projects. What’s really at stake is the Democrats’ supermajority in the California Senate. Last year Newman narrowly beat a Republican rival, who wants a rematch if the recall happens.

Neither party has its hands clean. Recall supporters falsely represented the campaign as a gas tax repeal to get voters to sign the recall petitions. Democrats then used their legislative majority to change the rules for recall elections to help their guy. What’s made this situation worse, though, is that this rough-and-tumble campaign has managed to tarnish the integrity of the state’s campaign finance watchdog, the Fair Political Practices Commission.

At the request of Senate Democrats, the commission is expected to abandon its long-held interpretation of state law that limits how much elected officials can transfer to recall campaigns of other candidates, over the objections of the commission’s lawyers and its chairwoman, Jodi Remke.

Here’s why it’s an issue. Recalls are ballot measures, and ballot measure campaigns are not subject to the normal fundraising limits. Therefore, Democrats argue, elected officials who want to help an ally fight a recall should not be restrained by the usual $4,400 limit on transfers from one candidate’s campaign committee to another’s.

The commission’s lawyers disagreed, making the important distinction that the cap in question refers to donations made by elected officials, not accepted by them. Nevertheless, last month, three of the four commissioners (all of whom have been appointed by Democratic elected officials) told the commission's lawyers to come up with a new reading of state law that comports with the Democrats’ request. Commissioners are expected to vote on those new rules later this month.

We hope they come to their senses by then. The limits, which are there to stop elected officials from opening a campaign account for a race for the sole purpose of raising money to help someone else. Lifting them would allow state Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de Leon, for example, to tap the $2.8 million he has raised for a 2018 lieutenant governor campaign he doesn’t seem to be actually mounting to help Newman. Not only is it dishonest to collect money from donors who want to support one candidate and transfer it wholesale to another, it also opens a door to political money laundering.

The rules have been in place for more than a decade. Changing them now to serve one party’s purposes would irreparably damage the commission’s credibility as the public’s political watchdog.

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