Campaign Money Machine Hits High Gear

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Two months after a judge struck down voter-imposed fund-raising restrictions, politicians are finding that raising money is like riding a bike. They never forget how.

In restaurants and cafes around the Capitol, campaign money starts flowing over sweet rolls, coffee and lukewarm bacon at morning fund-raisers, and continues over cocktails and greasy finger-food on into the dinner hour.

From wannabe Assembly members to candidates for governor, politicians are raising money full time. The price of admission to a fund-raiser held by a back-bench Assembly member is typically $500; state Senate candidates charge more like $1,000.

For donors who want to be part of the select few with more ready access to the legislative leaders, the price gets steep--$25,000. Statewide candidates talk of the need to raise six- and seven-figure sums.

It's as if voters never approved Proposition 208, the 1996 initiative that sought to restrict fund-raising and campaign spending.

The initiative was in effect last year, putting a lid on large-scale money raising. But in January, a federal judge struck down the measure, concluding that it violated the 1st Amendment rights of candidates and political parties. So with the clamps now off, candidates are making up for lost time.

"Candidates had a dry year, so they're forced to speed things up," said Dave Low of the California School Employees Assn.

In 1996, legislative candidates spent about $50 million. Chances are, campaigns won't cost any less in 1998, despite last year's fund-raising blackout.

"The need to raise money for an effective campaign hasn't changed," said Assembly Republican Leader Bill Leonard (R-San Bernardino), who raised $127,000 at a single lunch in Sacramento last month. "It has compressed the time available to raise the money."

With hotly contested Assembly races expected to cost each side $1 million, Leonard plans to raise at least $5 million to help elect Republicans to the Assembly. Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa (D-Los Angeles) will match that sum to elect Democrats.

The same is true in the state Senate, though because the districts are twice as large as Assembly districts, contested races can cost $2 million per side each.

"If you don't have $1 million [to spend in contested races] you probably shouldn't try. Isn't that ridiculous?" Senate Republican Leader Rob Hurtt (R-Garden Grove) said.

The stakes are high. Whichever party gains a majority in the 80-seat Assembly and 40-seat Senate will shape state policy. The majority party controls which bills get hearings, and which die, as well as spoils such as choice offices.

So candidates spend long hours dialing donors, urging them to attend fund-raisers. The events are part of the daily Capitol routine, Monday through Thursday.

Take a typical midweek day, Feb. 25, a Wednesday. In a two-block radius of the Capitol, there were six fund-raisers. A seventh was a short cab ride away.

By 9 a.m., enterprising lobbyists could have gone to five events, and consumed enough coffee, muffins and slices of honeydew to have kept them buzzing until well into the afternoon. A client would have been $3,000 poorer.

The first stop would have been a $500-per-ticket breakfast at a restaurant just east of the Capitol for Marco Firebaugh. Firebaugh, a 31-year-old graduate of UCLA's law school, is running for an Assembly seat now held by Martha M. Escutia (D-Bell), who is seeking a Senate seat. He has the support of several incumbents, including Escutia. Villaraigosa sent lobbyists a letter urging that they give to Firebaugh.

Firebaugh raised $8,000 at the event. That wasn't much, but he wasn't upset; it was his first Sacramento event, and he's not even in office. He and Escutia point out that, like many lawmakers from urban districts, they have a hard time raising money back home.

"I just don't get money from my district. It's like squeezing blood from a turnip," Escutia said. In Sacramento, by contrast, she can pull in $30,000 or $40,000 from Capitol insiders at a single fund-raiser.

From the get-to-know-Firebaugh session, a lobbyist could have walked to a breakfast hosted by Sen. Hilda Solis (D-El Monte), at $1,000 a pop, and then to separate $500-a-ticket breakfasts for Assemblymen Tony Cardenas (D-Sylmar), Steve Baldwin (R-El Cajon) and Gary Miller (R-Diamond Bar).

That evening, there were cocktails with Sen. John Lewis (R-Orange) for $1,000. From there, it was a short cab ride to Villaraigosa's fund-raiser, held on the eve of his swearing-in as speaker.

The price of admission started at $1,000. For $10,000, a donor could become what Villaraigosa called a "Friend of the Majority." For $25,000, a donor would become part of the vaunted "Majority Finance Cabinet." A lobbyist derided the titles as little more than "ego-massagers" for big-time donors.

Some Call Events 'Dull'

Villaraigosa's event featured an ice sculpture of the state Capitol the size of a conference table. There was a rock band, some cheese and crackers, fruit, and an open bar. It brought in several hundred thousand dollars.

"There's a little chit-chat," said one longtime organized labor lobbyist. "You have a glass of wine and a shrimp. It's dull. It's a social nicety that I don't particularly like. I suppose some people who drink a lot must like it."

Villaraigosa was surrounded by lobbyists and others cozying up to the new leader. Though he was busy, donors wanting to bend the ears of other lawmakers had their pick.

As is the custom, Villaraigosa invited other lawmakers, Republicans included. Assemblyman Keith Olberg (R-Victorville) quipped that Republicans came intent on draining "as much of Antonio's profits" as they could.

Villaraigosa has been particularly aggressive making phone calls. One lobbyist tells of calls from lawmakers, followed by meetings, followed by follow-up calls.

"There is more effort going into it than at any time in my 16 years," the lobbyist said. When he told Villaraigosa how much his client was prepared to give Assembly Democrats, Villaraigosa responded bluntly: "That's not enough."

The demise of Proposition 208 is only part of this year's campaign spending story. The initiative would not have restricted what wealthy candidates could spend on their campaigns, and there are several of those this year.

With multimillionaires Al Checchi and Rep. Jane Harman (D-Torrance) spending about $1 million a week on television ads as they run for the Democratic nomination for governor, the price of democracy California-style is spiraling into unknown territory.

Checchi's television commercials have been airing since October. He may spend $30 million by the June 2 primary. Harman, a late entry, may dole out $15 million by then. Lt. Gov. Gray Davis, the third major Democratic candidate, cannot hope to equal Harman and Checchi's spending. He must raise money the old-fashioned way. But he will chip in perhaps $7 million by the primary, a Davis campaign aide said.

Add it up, and the cost of the Democratic primary could eclipse what Gov. Pete Wilson and Democratic challenger Kathleen Brown spent on the entire 1994 campaign--$53 million combined.

The general election campaign for governor is expected to cost at least another $30 million.

Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren, the sure Republican nominee, already has attracted national figures, such as former President George Bush, to help him raise money. He has told donors that with Proposition 208 gone, "there are no limits on sources or amounts of contributions."

"All records will be broken. It's inevitable if [Checchi or Harman] is the nominee," said Garry South, Davis' campaign manager. "This is unprecedented. Unprecedented."

Then there are the ballot initiatives, and races for the lesser statewide posts. If 1998 initiatives cost half the $141 million spent in 1996 on ballot measures, and the statewide contests for the lesser posts equal the $58 million spent four years ago, state campaigns could cost a combined $250 million.

If wealthy businessman Darrell Issa wins the GOP nomination for U.S. Senate and faces Democratic incumbent Sen. Barbara Boxer, the overall amount could reach $300 million.

"Three hundred million is a piker's estimate," said Tony Miller, who is seeking the Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor.

Miller, one of the main backers of Proposition 208, hopes to set himself apart by declining donations of more than $1,000, the limit imposed by Proposition 208. He expects to cap his campaign spending at $750,000--"to prove it can be done."

However, Miller's opponent in the Democratic primary, former Assembly Speaker Cruz Bustamante (D-Fresno), has no such self-imposed restriction. Bustamante has $1.3 million in the bank, and is spending six hours a day on the phone and in meetings raising money with the goal of at least doubling that sum.

In the attorney general's race, Sen. Bill Lockyer (D-Hayward) is the leading money raiser by far. He had $3 million in the bank at the first of the year. In a single day of raising money in Los Angeles last month, he said, he brought in $250,000. By June 2, Lockyer will have raised more than the $3.6 million outgoing Atty. Gen. Lungren spent on his entire 1994 campaign.

Taking His Campaign to the Next Level

In his early Assembly and Senate campaigns, Lockyer walked door-to-door. Now that he is in a statewide campaign, Lockyer thinks not about comfortable walking shoes, but about ensuring that television viewers see his commercials 10 times in a 10-day period--at a cost of about $1.2 million.

"I'd love to walk door-to-door, but you can't in a state with 32 million people," Lockyer said.

Paying to get on television, though, is just one of many elements that drive up modern campaign costs. Most others aren't readily visible to voters. But they too are expensive and help fuel candidates' need to raise ever-larger sums.

In an Assembly race, for example, a computer system that includes a large database of potential donors can cost $15,000. One piece of campaign mail to one of those voters can cost 40 cents. In a Senate district, a mass mailing can run $25,000 or $50,000, campaign consultants say.

Opposition research--digging up dirt on opponents--can range from $5,000 in a legislative race or a low-budget statewide contest to $100,000 for a major statewide campaign.

In a legislative race, efforts to identify absentee voters and call them to persuade them to return their ballots can cost $60,000. Phone bank operators charge 25 cents to $1 per call, and as much as $10,000 or $20,000 a night.

Reformers decry the cost of campaigns. But consultants and many officials insist it's low, given what's spent to advertise soap, tacos or soda pop.

"We're competing with all those messages," Sacramento campaign consultant Wayne Johnson said. "We spend more on Barbie dolls in this country than on political campaigns. That's fact. If you want to communicate information, there's a price to that."

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Cost of a Legislative Campaign

Now the Proposition 208, which restricted campaign fund-raising and spending, has been overturned, politicians are again embarked on a fund-raising frenzy. More than 20 years ago, in 1975-76, total campaign costs of candidates running for the Legislature amounted to less than $15 million. During the most recent election, 1995-96, campaign expenses in legislative races exceeded $100 million.

Campaign Expenditures in California, 2-Year Totals (in millions) General Election

75-76: $14.7 million

95-96: $105.7 million

Source: California secretary of state

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