Faced by what he termed an "almost hysterical reaction," Dan Stanford, chairman of the state Fair Political Practices Commission, said Tuesday he is dropping the most controversial aspect of his proposal to license paid political consultants--one that would require them to follow a code of ethics.
Stanford confirmed that he is backing off from the code of ethics during a break in a public hearing in which the plan received a lukewarm reception from state legislators.
The FPPC chairman and his staff proposed the licensing law, with a code of ethics that remained to be written, two weeks ago as a backdoor approach to controlling campaign mudslinging.
They said such a law could serve as a deterrent because the FPPC could revoke the licenses of consultants who permitted misleading or libelous material in their clients' campaign statements.
But the proposal evoked a storm of protest from consultants, who said at an FPPC hearing in Los Angles that the plan bordered on "tryanny" because it violated their First Amendment right to free speech.
Some legislators said they agree, and Gov. George Deukmejian suggested Tuesday that the licensing proposal may be misguided because consultants are not to blame for unethical campaign practices.
"I really think the campaigns that I'm aware of where the political consultant is involved, the final decision (on how to run a campaign) is retained by the candidate. At least it should be," Deukmejian said at a Sacramento Press Club luncheon. "Or in the case of a proposition, some committee retains the consultant.
"So if a consultant were to propose a kind of campaign that is less than admirable, the final decision is made by either the committee or the candidate."
Although he is scuttling the most controversial part of the licensing proposal, Stanford still is pushing for legislation that would require consultants to register with the FPPC, disclose their financial interests and adhere to future commission rules regulating their business practices.
He also said he wants to make sure candidates are as accountable as consultants on the content of campaign literature by requiring that consultants and candidates confer and approve all their advertising and literature.
Yet even the more modest approach got a less than enthusiastic reception Tuesday from legislators who appeared before Stanford and other commissioners at their second and final public hearing on the proposal. Assemblyman Johan Klehs (D--San Leandro), chairman of the Assembly Election and Reapportionment Committee, warned the FPPC that "licensing may not be the best approach."
Asked afterward by reporters if the modified licensing plan could pass the Legislature, Klehs said it would not. "We don't license the advertising profession who advertise for Pepsi Cola..." he said.
Assemblyman Art Agnos (D--San Francisco) told the hearing that he too thought the modified licensing plan would have a "difficult" time passing the Legislature, although "if you put this up to a vote of the people it would pass immediately."
But Agnos commended Stanford and the FPPC staff for their efforts, adding that many consultants are "footloose and fancy free with millions of dollars...and they have no accountability except some vague word of mouth" among voters and candidates about potential unethical practices.