Putting Out Their Hands One Last Time
The California Legislature is truly amazing. It’s hard to tell whether our lawmakers are masochistic, arrogant, desperate, stupid, piggish or all of the above. Signs point to the latter.
It’s August again and the Legislature has placed another softball on a batting tee and invited the news media to swing away.
This is what I’m referring to: We’re down to the final four weeks of the legislative session. It’s do or die for hundreds of bills, affecting virtually every special interest in the state. The Capitol corridors and committee rooms are packed with lobbyists conniving to keep some bills alive and kill others. At stake may be millions for their clients and a livelihood for themselves.
These lobbyists would trade one week on their cellular phones for one private minute with a committee chairman or a swing vote legislator.
So if you’re a legislator, what better time to invite lobbyists to a fund-raiser, to ask them to hit up their clients for donations to your campaign kitty?
It smacks of extortion. But it’s legal, as long as any hint of a quid pro quo is confined to body language and nuance. Everybody these days is leery of somebody maybe wearing an FBI wire after 14 federal convictions stemming from a sting operation.
“What you have in the August orgy,” says Sen. Tom Hayden (D-Santa Monica), “is a huge fire sale: ‘Buy your access now.’ ”
And maybe your bills, too.
This is an old, annual news story. The astonishing thing is that the Legislature keeps perpetuating it--in the wake of corruption scandals, the voters’ angry imposition of term limits and miserable job ratings.
One disgusted lobbyist showed me his thick file of fund-raising invitations. It was growing daily, but by Tuesday morning there were 101 for August. To attend each would cost him nearly $57,000, which he had no intention of doing. On next Tuesday and Wednesday alone, 15 events are scheduled each day. The following Tuesday 16 are planned.
The going rate is $500 per ticket. But committee chairmen and legislative leaders can command $750 or $1,000.
“Depending on where the event is, I can tell you what’ll be on the buffet table and where the shrimp will be,” says the veteran lobbyist, who, like his colleagues, requested anonymity. “If anybody thinks these things are fun, they’ve only been to one in their life.”
Another lobbyist for a business group complained that “everybody’s standing there (in the Legislature) with their hand out. We decided not to go to any fund-raisers this month. We simply felt they’ve crossed the line. It’s no longer ethical.”
“We were talking about it, saying if they’re serious about legislating, that’s what they ought to be doing this month instead of raising money. If they’re not serious now, when the hell are they going to be serious?”
Another longtime lobbyist says: “It’s outrageous, unbelievable, unseemly.”
During the corruption trials, he says, he began thinking about the late Speaker Jesse Unruh’s famous admonition to rookie legislators about lobbyists: “If you can’t eat their food, drink their booze, (make love to) their women and then vote against them, you don’t belong up here.”
But “that’s wishful thinking,” this lobbyist asserts. “The fact is, as human beings you’re influenced by that. You’re influenced by money.”
No party, gender or age group has a corner on Sacramento fund raising. Indeed, some “fresh blood” rookies who promised “change” in their 1992 races are in danger of being corrupted by the very system they ran against.
“I have to live with reality,” says Assemblywoman Debra Bowen (D-Marina del Rey), a widely respected newcomer. “I conduct myself according to current rules. The rules need to be changed, but I won’t be here to change them if I don’t run an active campaign.”
She’s having one of those 15 fund-raisers next Tuesday. The cover: $500.
Not every fund-raising lawmaker is even running for reelection. “Please join Assemblyman Paul Woodruff for his last Sacramento fund-raiser to retire his 1988 campaign debt,” reads an invitation from the Moreno Valley Republican.
“I have a moral obligation to try to pay off this debt. I owe like $40,000,” Woodruff says. “But if I make $5,000, I’ll laugh.”
Acting Secretary of State Tony Miller, a strong advocate of reform, says: “The whole campaign finance system offends me. We have a lot of very good people trapped in a very bad system.”
But they do have the power to change that system.