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The Myth of Clean Politics Crumbles

An enduring California myth has held that politics are cleaner here than in other states.

It’s really more complicated than that. For example, look what’s happened to two well-known elected officials, Mayor Tom Bradley and Sen. Alan Cranston.

Bradley’s personal and political finances are under investigation by local, state and federal officials. Cranston is being investigated by the Senate Ethics Committee as one of the Keating Five, accused of giving special treatment to campaign contributor Charles Keating, owner of Lincoln Savings & Loan.

What’s ironic is that the two had started out as reformers, first Cranston and then Bradley, heroes of the California myth.

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As an idealistic liberal Democrat, Cranston wanted to expand the party’s base, recruiting the young families moving to California after World War II. In 1953, he founded the California Democratic Council, a group of grass-roots volunteers who soon became a dominating force in party affairs. The volunteers, organized in clubs throughout the state, were anti-Legislature, anti-Establishment and anti-corporate power.

Bradley, then a police officer, got into politics by joining a CDC club in Los Angeles. The young CDC reformers welcomed him, and by the early ‘60s had formed the heart of a political organization that elected Bradley to the City Council and eventually made him mayor.

People power. Grass-roots democracy. The California ideal.

The same sort of thing I’d been taught in school, along with the story of a sainted old governor named Hiram Johnson who had permanently banished all crooks from the Capitol. I accepted that until until I arrived in the Capitol in 1961, many years after Johnson’s demise. That’s when I learned that old Hiram’s broom hadn’t swept clean.

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Racetracks, the liquor and beer business, and the banks and savings and loans all had a piece of the government, exerting their influence through powerful lobbyists, campaign contributions and favors. Favors were as small as a pass to the races and as large as a chance for a bargain-basement purchase of savings and loan stock. In the mornings, oil, liquor and racetrack lobbyists would sit down with the Senate president, the late Hugh Burns, and plan the day’s legislative agenda.

When I moved to Los Angeles in 1970, I found things were pretty much the same at City Hall, except that the land developers occupied the power positions held in Sacramento by oil and financial institutions.

No one thought there was anything wrong with this--not the press, not the politicians, not even the public. In fact, in the middle of this gaudy era, in 1968, Californians voted the Legislature a pay raise and gave it full-time status.

While they advocated--and accomplished--reform, Bradley and Cranston also learned the contribution game. You can’t be elected in this huge state, where costly television commercials dominate politics, without being able to rake in big contributions.

When Bradley first ran for mayor in 1969, his finance chairman was a rich land developer named Mark Boyar. Mark, who’s now dead, was my cousin. He was tough, smart, sophisticated and totally cynical. I can’t think of any character more in contrast to the Bradley reformers than Mark--or anyone Bradley needed more that year. He raised the money that fueled the reform campaign.

Cranston, even in his younger days, was an extremely successful fund-raiser. He was state controller from 1959 to 1967. Like his predecessors, Cranston appointed functionaries known as inheritance tax appraisers. They were campaign contributors and other political cronies who’d make a quick examination of the deceased’s holdings and collect a substantial fee from the estate.

Over the years, Bradley and Cranston became most adept at the money game.

Bradley has outstripped his predecessor, Sam Yorty, in raising money from those doing business with the city. Documents recently obtained by The Times portrayed City Hall as a virtual fund-raising “boiler room.” And it now appears that Cranston has been running a one-man portable boiler room, calling contributors day and night from his office, his home, hotel rooms, airports.

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If you ask either the mayor or the senator, they would tell you they’ve done nothing wrong. And by the standards of their youth, maybe they haven’t.

But rules of politics have changed since the early reform days of Bradley and Cranston. In their time, the press began routinely investigating campaign contributions. Populist-style politicians learned they could win by attacking even the smallest conflicts of interest. Ethics became an Issue.

The myth of clean California politics has been put to a test. And as it has crumbled, so have the fortunes of some of those who honestly helped create it.


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