Californians in 1988 voted for an initiative that in the plainest of language outlawed mass mailings by elected officials at public expense.
Since then, however, state lawmakers have sent out more than 35 million pieces of taxpayer-financed bulk mail. Much of it came from officials facing tough elections.
Legislators have spent almost $6 million on well-organized “communications” programs by taking advantage of regulations that created major loopholes in the law, The Times has found.
The mailings have accelerated in the Assembly during the current two-year session, primarily because Republican members have sent more than 10 million pieces to constituents. Records show that the three most prolific GOP members sent out more mail than all the Democrats combined.
Many mailers are highly political in tone and baldly self-promotional, touting partisan views on such hot-button issues as welfare and crime, gas tax cuts and illegal immigration.
A number appear frivolous, such as computer-generated letters urging constituents to “Take a Hike!” to celebrate National Parks and Recreation Month.
Others are largely informational, some without discernible legislative purpose, such as notices of free eye exams and invitations to have children fingerprinted. One letter marks the 23rd anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War, another the fifth anniversary of the Gulf War.
What happened in the eight years since passage of Proposition 73 shows how the expressed will of the state’s voters can be circumvented and diluted. It also demonstrates the inventiveness of elected officials in finding ways to use tax funds to promote themselves and maintain their grip on public office.
Defenders say mass mailings help them keep in touch with constituents, who welcome the contact. They also say exemptions allowed by the state’s political watchdog agency permit them to send as many letters as they want, providing they do not exceed their budget.
“They give you a chunk of money. You can do a number of things with it,” said Assembly Majority Leader James E. Rogan (R-Glendale), who has sent more than 620,000 pieces of mail this session. “You can take junkets or you can try to keep your constituents posted on what’s going on. I don’t take junkets.”
Now, because of criticism from some legislators and a flap over a provocative GOP mailer on the new three-strikes law, the Fair Political Practices Commission is considering whether rules changes are needed.
A Powerful Perk
Free mailing privileges have long been a prime perk of legislators--one that challengers say gives an unfair edge to incumbents. And the party in control in each house, through the power of the purse, has always been able to fire out a larger volume of mail than the minority party.
The 1988 ballot measure sought to change all that with the simple admonition: “No newsletter or other mass mailing shall be sent at public expense.”
Mass mailing, said the authors of Proposition 73, amounted to electioneering at public expense. “The mailings were little more than thinly disguised campaign pieces,” said co-author Sen. Ross Johnson (R-Irvine).
Even a rather neutral piece, such as an opinion survey or list of fire safety tips, can help a lawmaker with name recognition in his district. “Your name is the name of the game,” said another co-author, Sen. Quentin L. Kopp (I-San Francisco).
Mail records, obtained under the Legislative Open Records Act, show that after passage of the initiative, the volume of bulk mail sent out by the state Senate dropped sharply and has never rebounded.
But in the Assembly, the amount of mail had been building slowly under the Democrats, only to shoot up suddenly after the Republicans gained a majority in the 1994 elections.
Over the last 21 months, records show, GOP members have engaged in a mass mailing spree, sending out more than six times as much as Assembly Democrats, largely targeted toward districts with contested races.
Five Democrats, some facing stiff election fights, have sent at least 100,000 pieces of mail. But no Democrats are among the top 20 mail users identified by a Times computerized analysis of mail and postage records.
The ban was never popular among legislators, many of whom say that communication with voters is a vital part of their job. And the line between legislators informing their constituents and promoting their own political fortunes is not always a clear one.
Immediately after passage of Proposition 73, elected officials started complaining that the prohibition, if strictly enforced, would bring government to a halt--and might even prevent the mailing of income tax refunds and voter information pamphlets.
The Fair Political Practices Commission responded by writing rules intended to keep the government’s doors open for business by allowing broad exceptions to the law.
These rules reinforced the ban on slick newsletters featuring photos of lawmakers and flattering articles on their accomplishments.
But the regulations opened the way for other sorts of mass mailings that critics say fulfill much the same purpose. For example, elected officials could mail as many notices of public meetings, such as town hall forums, as they wished.
This, Johnson warned at the time, was “a very major loophole that my colleagues and I in the California Legislature will be driving Mack trucks through very quickly.”
Proposition 73 allowed each legislator to send up to 200 copies of a given letter in one month without violating the mass-mailing ban. But after a series of rulings by the FPPC, lawmakers quickly figured out they could ship thousands of computer-generated letters at a time.
For example, one member sent about 70 different letters one month in batches of 200 or less--more than 14,000 letters in all.
The FPPC commissioners “distorted Proposition 73 in the regulations. They created a means of evading it,” Kopp said.
In recent years, Johnson and Kopp have turned to mass mailings, but the numbers are relatively small and neither has sent out bulk mail close to election day.
Mass Mailing Machine
Mass mailing has become institutionalized in the Assembly and the Senate, but with a difference.
Senators are allowed to spend no more than $8,800 annually and cannot make large-scale mailings in the three months before an election.
Assembly members can spend as much as they want of their $240,000-a-year basic office budget on mailing. Until this month, members were allowed to send out publicly funded mailers right up until election day.
The legislative staffs of both houses write the mailers, and these are reviewed for conformance with FPPC regulations. The letters are printed and mailed from legislative offices at public expense.
The party caucuses encourage members to take advantage of these services.
“Unsolicited mail can provide different types of outreach for our Assembly members,” states an internal memorandum earlier this year from the Assembly’s Republican Caucus. It suggested that the names of office visitors, new homeowners and newly registered voters in a legislator’s district can be computerized so they can be contacted for town hall meetings or future mailings.
In practice, The Times found, the mailings are used most by legislators facing a stiff challenge in their district or trying to advance to another office.
Republican Assemblyman Peter Frusetta of Tres Pinos has sent out more publicly funded mail in the last 21 months than any other lawmaker--more than 665,000 pieces so far this session. A lifelong rancher who calls himself the “cowboy in the Capitol,” he faces a tough rematch against a Democratic opponent he narrowly defeated two years ago. The outcome could determine which party controls the Assembly.
Frusetta sends out many computer-generated letters in batches of 200 letters at a time. In late June, he mailed out more than 14,000 of these letters. One batch, paying homage to the U.S. flag, called for support of a federal constitutional amendment to make flag desecration a crime. Another praised legislation to bar local school boards from using taxpayer funds on behalf of candidates or ballot measures. “As a taxpayer I don’t believe my tax dollars should be used for political purpose and I hope you agree,” he wrote.
Frusetta said in an interview: “Lots of people come up to me and say they like the letters. They say they are informative. That encourages me to continue.
“I see it as a way to keep the constituents informed, to keep their interest alive, to get them involved in controversial issues. I see it as a public service.”
Second to Frusetta in mailing is Rogan, the Assembly majority leader, who faces a millionaire Democratic businessman in a key race this November in the partisan struggle for control of the U.S. House of Representatives.
The Proposition 73 restrictions were designed in part to prevent lawmakers from using mailers for partisan purposes. And the FPPC tried to eliminate self-serving statements in mailers by barring personal pronouns such as “I,” “me” or “my.”
But one of Rogan’s letters sent out to 43,000 constituents attacked “the Democrat-controlled Senate” for stalling or killing “important job-creating legislation that passed the Assembly.”
Under the FPPC’s rules, Rogan could not sign those letters, yet he was clearly identified as the author. His name appeared on an official-looking letterhead in large capital letters, because the rules allow it.
Last spring, Democratic Assemblyman Willard H. Murray Jr. of Paramount sent out more than 100,000 pieces of subsidized mail to his district, most of them fliers suitable for posting on household bulletin boards, with information on local recreational programs and fire safety.
This mail--the only large-scale mailings Murray sent out all session--went out in the final weeks before he lost narrowly to then-Assemblywoman Juanita McDonald (D-Carson) and others in a race for a vacant congressional seat.
Murray denied that the mailer was used to enhance his election chances. “We got behind [in the mailing], and they all wound up going out then,” he said.
Rethinking the Rules
Co-author Kopp and other lawmakers have been urging the Fair Political Practices Commission to reexamine the rules that allowed lawmakers to mail millions of mass mailers, despite the ban.
The commissioners are promising to reconsider the regulations, perhaps as soon as their November meeting, said commission general counsel Steven G. Churchwell.
The review is prompted by Kopp and others and by a recent flap over a “Save Three Strikes” mailer sent out by a number of Republican Assembly members.
The stridently pro-GOP mailer attacks “soft-on-crime politicians” led by Senate President Pro Tem Bill Lockyer (D-Hayward) for “doing all they can to destroy the anti-crime gains we have made these past two years.”
But Churchwell cautions that it will be difficult to craft rules to end mailings that appear too partisan or are too flattering to the senders. “It’s easy to say the goal is stop fluff pieces,” he said. “How do you do that?”
University of Virginia professor Larry J. Sabato, who has written about congressional abuse of mailing privileges, said: “Some of the most ingenious people in the world are attracted to politics. And there will never be a way to design a law to keep [mailings] from being abused.”
The party in power sees to it that its members have the resources to get out the mail, said Democratic campaign consultant Richie Ross, who helped plan mail programs as the Assembly’s chief administrative officer under Democratic Speaker Willie Brown.
“Traditionally what happened was the vulnerable incumbents sent out more mail than the non-vulnerable incumbents, if your party was in control of the numbers,” Ross said.
And direct mail to voters plays a crucial role in winning elections, he said. “Nine times out of 10, campaigns are won by the candidate who did the most mail.”
Before passage of Proposition 73, officeholders were barred from sending mass mail once they declared for public office. After enactment of the initiative, the Senate imposed a rule of its own, banning mass mail in the three months before an election.
The Assembly had no such rule until this month, when Speaker Curt Pringle (R-Garden Grove) proposed one prohibiting all Assembly members from sending taxpayer-funded mass mail within 60 days of an election “to remove the potential to misconstrue any publicly financed mailings as intended for political purpose.”
A spokesman for Pringle said Republicans had an informal rule barring mailings any closer than six weeks before the March 26 primary election.
A score of GOP members ignored this policy, sending 874,000 pieces in that period, according to logs at the Assembly Reproduction Center.
During the same period, seven Assembly Democrats mailed out 208,000 pieces, including those sent out by Murray.
Democrats have objected to Pringle’s 60-day cutoff proposal, and the Assembly Rules Committee agreed to a compromise, 45-day cutoff--a decision that came as lawmakers, primarily Republicans, were already deluging their districts with mail.
Assemblyman Jim Cunneen of Cupertino, a first-term Republican, has already sent more than 565,000 pieces of mail this session, many announcing town hall meetings with Cunneen.
Cunneen, who is facing former California Teachers Assn. President Ed Foglia in another key Assembly race, said: “You don’t have to come to a fund-raiser to ask me a question.”
Foglia complains that Cunneen’s mailers have made his challenge more difficult.
“It’s a tremendous advantage,” he said. “I just thought that under Proposition 73, this was taken care of.”
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Publicly Financed Mail
Despite a ban on mass mailing, state legislators have taken advantage of loopholes in the law in increase the amount of mail they have been sending out at public expense. Since gaining a majority in the Assembly two years ago, Republican members have increased their mail dramatically.
Total Assembly mailing cost
Source: Assembly Daily File (1990-1991); Assembly Rules Committee (1995)
Note: Includes all postage by individual members, does not include printing or processing costs. Totals for 1995 are from unaudited, unreconciled data.
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These are the Assembly members who spent the most on mass mailings from Jan. 1, 1995, to Aug. 19, 1996.
ASSEMBLY MEMBER: 1. Peter Frusetta (R-Tres Pinos)
COMMENTS: Top target of Democrats in crucial race.
ASSEMBLY MEMBER: 2. James E. Rogan (R-Glendale)
COMMENTS: Running for Congress against millionaire Democrat.
ASSEMBLY MEMBER: 3. Jim Morrissey (R-Santa Ana)
COMMENTS: Seeks reelection in once-Democratic district.
ASSEMBLY MEMBER: 4. Jim Cunneen (R-Cupertino)
COMMENTS: Democrats threaten to target this race.
ASSEMBLY MEMBER: 5. Bill Hoge (R-Pasadena)
COMMENTS: Running against popular college president.
ASSEMBLY MEMBER: 6. Jim Battin (R-La Quinta)
COMMENTS: Faces ex-assemblyman in district with Democratic edge.
ASSEMBLY MEMBER: 7. Howard Kaloogian (R-Carlsbad)
COMMENTS: Possible challenge by independent after primary.
ASSEMBLY MEMBER: 8. Phil Hawkins (R-Bellflower)
COMMENTS: Faces ex-assemblywoman in Senate bid.
ASSEMBLY MEMBER: 9. Steven T. Kuykendall (R-Rancho P.V.)
COMMENTS: Narrow winner in 1994; has new Democratic challenger.
ASSEMBLY MEMBER: 10. Brett Granlund (R-Yucaipa)
COMMENTS: Safe after winning contested GOP primary.
ASSEMBLY MEMBER: 11. George House (R-Hughson)
COMMENTS: Target of Democrats in seat they once held.
ASSEMBLY MEMBER: 12. Steve Baldwin (R-El Cajon)
COMMENTS: Seeks reelection in once-Democratic district.
ASSEMBLY MEMBER: 13. Marilyn C. Brewer (R-Irvine)
COMMENTS: Withstood primary challenge.
ASSEMBLY MEMBER: 14. Fred Aguiar (R-Chino)
COMMENTS: Considered a safe bet for reelection.
ASSEMBLY MEMBER: 15. Scott Baugh (R-Huntington Beach)
COMMENTS: Election law indictment clouds chances.
ASSEMBLY MEMBER: 16. Tom J. Bordonaro Jr. (R-Paso Robles)
COMMENTS: Seeks reelection in safe district.
ASSEMBLY MEMBER: 17. Brooks Firestone (R-Los Olivos)
COMMENTS: No threat expected in reelection effort.
ASSEMBLY MEMBER: 18. Jim Brulte (R-Rancho Cucamonga)
COMMENTS: Stepping up to Senate in safe Republican district.
ASSEMBLY MEMBER: 19. Richard K. Rainey (R-Walnut Creek)
COMMENTS: Senate race against Democratic countysupervisor.
ASSEMBLY MEMBER: 20. Gary G. Miller (R-West Covina)
COMMENTS: Easy time expected in reelection bid.
Source: Assembly Reproduction Center
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About This Series
In this election year, control of the state Legislature is on the line. Two initiatives seeking to reform campaign fund-raising are on the November ballot. And term limits for the state Assembly take effect--prompted in part by rising public concern about the way politicians use incumbency to advance their careers.
In this occasional series, The Times explores how money influences governmental action and how elected officials use their positions to reward supporters and improve their prospects at the polls.
TODAY: How incumbents, particularly Assembly Republicans, are taking advantage of loopholes in a mass mailing ban to send millions of pieces to voters in their districts at taxpayers’ expense.