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Fund-Raising Frenzy Hits State Capitol

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It was supposed to be different. The 27 new members of the Assembly were going to break out of the mold.

As the first group elected under term limits, many of them vowed to be independent, to put personal ambition and partisan politics aside in favor of serving the voters.

But after nine months in office, they have discovered one important fact that their veteran colleagues know all too well: Staying in office in California costs hundreds of thousands of dollars, and you can never be too bold in asking lobbyists and special interests for money, especially at this time of year.

So that is why, as the Capitol again finds itself in a late-summer political fund-raising frenzy, these new lawmakers have their hands out.

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Pitches for money are particularly effective right now, as the Legislature rushes to adjourn next week for the rest of the year and special interest groups vie for attention in hopes that their bills beat the deadline.

Many of the freshman members say they don’t like following in these well-trodden footsteps. But they are propelled to do so by the fear that, if they don’t play the game, they will find themselves and their ideals sitting at home after next year’s elections.

Take freshman Assemblywoman Debra Bowen (D-Marina del Rey). She is co-author of a major campaign finance reform bill that would ban the kind of off-year fund raising now going on. Yet she held a $500-a-ticket jazz-and-pasta dinner fund-raiser Monday.

“I remain personally committed to campaign finance reform,” she said. “It is critical to the future of this state. But it also is like pro football. If the NFL is talking about eliminating fourth downs, it would be foolish for the Los Angeles Raiders to start punting on third downs.”

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Talking about the freshmen as a group, Bowen said: “In some respects, we are very different from the old-timers, but in other respects, we are just like them. We all have to run for office, and it costs a lot of money. I’m playing by the rules as they are now. I wish I weren’t, but they (the rules) haven’t changed--yet.” Her campaign finance reform co-author, freshman Republican Assemblyman Jan Goldsmith of Poway, held a $500-a-ticket fund-raiser here last week.

Their bill is languishing, shuffled into the limbo of between-sessions study.

In legislative politics, off-year fund raising and incumbency are synonymous. During a non-election year, incumbents can pay off campaign debts and build up new war chests.

In 1991, the most recent non-election year, Assembly incumbents collected $16.3 million in campaign contributions, and incumbent senators raised $8.2 million. Through the first six months of this year, Assembly incumbents had raised $7.2 million and Senate incumbents $2.4 million.

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Earlier this month, 10 freshmen--six Democrats and four Republicans--sponsored $500-a-ticket fund-raisers in Sacramento. But that was only the beginning.

Freshman Assemblyman Bill Hoge (R-Pasadena), for example, is charging $500 for an ice cream social fund-raiser on Sept. 8. Hoge, who opposes banning off-year fund raising, says raising money is something that has to be done.

“Running campaigns is a very expensive proposition today,” he said. “If you are going to be a competitive candidate for office, you have to have the funds to put (into) an effective campaign.”

From a $500 “Jurassic Park” breakfast and a $750 “family party” in Capitol Park, to a $500 “beach party” and $749 wine tasting, this is one of the main seasons for harvesting campaign dollars in Sacramento, freshmen or not.

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One veteran lobbyist said he received a record 74 invitations to attend various cocktail parties and other fund-raising functions in August, most at $500 a pop. It would have cost his clients $36,839 to attend them all.

He has logged 34 invitations for September, with more coming in every day.

“This is ridiculous,” said one lobbyist who, like others interviewed, declined to be named. “I couldn’t go to all of those fund-raisers, even if I wanted to, and I don’t want to.”

Assemblywoman Barbara Alby (R-Carmichael), who won a special election July 27 to replace the late B.T. Collins, may have set a record for a turnaround between election and a Sacramento fund-raiser. Tuesday night, Alby held a $500 fund-raiser to help pay her campaign debt.

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The logic behind the rash of fund-raisers is simple. The current session is scheduled to recess Sept. 10, and hundreds of bills important to various lobbyists and their clients are hanging in both the Assembly and Senate.

Invariably, however, lawmakers deny that those who don’t buy tickets are at a disadvantage.

Assemblywoman Jackie Speier, a veteran Democrat from Burlingame, is host of the $500 “Jurassic Park” breakfast Thursday. Speier is chairwoman of the Consumer Protection, Governmental Efficiency and Economic Development Committee and is a rumored candidate for statewide office next year.

Asked whether buying a ticket would influence her vote, she said: “Absolutely not. It has nothing to do with my vote. I frankly do not know who most of the people who do come represent. I vote on all bills on their merits, and I believe most other people do, too.”

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Assemblyman Pat Nolan (R-Glendale), under indictment on political corruption charges in connection with an FBI legislative sting operation, is again sponsoring his annual $500 indoor beach party Sept. 8.

The Southern California lawmaker, who has pleaded not guilty to all charges, will use part of the money collected from his party to pay his legal defense fees.

“Yes, I will do that,” he said, “and I have made that clear to people I have invited. Part of the proceeds will go to try to counteract the millions of dollars that the federal government is using against me.”


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