Politicians Up the Ante in Scramble for Funds

Share via

In the old days cigars, wine and hors d’oeuvres were enough to woo campaign contributors. Today the well-heeled political giver can expect golf at Pebble Beach, nights at an exclusive resort or tickets to a welterweight fight in Las Vegas.

In California, the Lincoln Bedroom would be small potatoes. What state officials are willing to offer their political contributors has moved from the paltry to the luxurious. What President Clinton may have pioneered, California politicians have carried to new extremes.

Witness the 1999 Speaker’s Golf Classic sponsored by AT&T; and hosted a week ago by Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa (D-Los Angeles). A glossy invitation, complete with sound effects, offered potential donors a two-day golfing extravaganza at the exclusive Pebble Beach and Spanish Bay golf courses.


For a donation of $30,000 or more to the speaker’s campaign treasury, the donor got play for two on both courses, two nights’ accommodations, a private dinner with the speaker and his leadership team and “commemorative gifts.” A $15,000 contribution bought the same package for one person.

To set the mood, the invitation played sounds of a golf ball swishing through the air and an appreciative crowd oohing in admiration.

In May, contributors flew to Las Vegas for a Villaraigosa fund-raiser, this one offering tickets to a welterweight bout featuring Oscar De La Hoya.

“You have to think of creative ways of doing this, because what happens is people get tired of going to all these fund-raisers,” said Villaraigosa, who is not a fight fan and does not golf. “I have the biggest assemblage of Democrats since 1992 [in the lower house], and my responsibility is to fund many of their races, some almost completely.”

Villaraigosa is prohibited by law from using those funds for a Los Angeles mayoral race, which he is considering, and he has pledged that the money will go exclusively to Assembly races.

He said the golf event netted about $400,000; the welterweight fight $75,000.

This new sophistication in fund-raising helped Villaraigosa, a lame duck who will be forced out of office by term limits next year, to bring his total political collections to more than $1.8 million since the first of the year. His counterpart in the Senate, President Pro Tem John Burton, raised even more--in excess of $2 million--in just three months, April through June, campaign finance reports show.


Both legislative leaders were eclipsed in the drive for dollars by Gov. Gray Davis, who garnered $6.1 million in a money-raising blitz from January through June geared to an election that is still more than three years away.

One of the chief responsibilities of legislative leaders is to raise money for their members’ races, and in so doing to help their party maintain a majority in each house.

The two lawmakers collected large amounts from the traditional Democratic base--trial lawyers and labor--but they also got hefty donations from business groups--often big contributors to Republicans--that have strong stakes in issues currently before the Legislature. Health care groups, the insurance industry, doctors, alcoholic beverage interests and Nevada casinos all gave generously to the Democrats.

In June, the Circus Circus casino sponsored a fund-raiser for Burton in Las Vegas, collecting nearly $150,000 from Nevada gambling interests that oppose the proliferation of Indian gaming. Before the last election, Indian tribes that run casinos in California poured thousands of dollars into legislative races.

Mercury General Corp., an insurance giant that has an interest in legislation affecting automobile policies, gave $125,000 to Burton and $25,000 to Villaraigosa. Vintner E&J; Gallo, which has opposed extending recycling provisions to wine bottles, donated $60,000 to the Senate leader and $75,000 to the Assembly speaker.

Unlike many states, California has no limits on political donations for candidates seeking state office. The voter-approved Proposition 208, which would have capped individual contributions at $1,000, was struck down by a federal judge and was followed by an orgy of uninhibited fund-raising.


“It’s an arms race,” said Jamie Court, a consumer lobbyist who says he does not contribute to campaigns. “Now that the Dems are the only game in town, the ante is much greater than ever before. The perception among the insurers, the doctors, the lawyers and every other moneyed interest is that ‘We’ve got to deliver more cash if we want to get something done. Otherwise the other guys are going to beat us.’ ”

Democrats have big majorities in both legislative houses and hold the governorship, plus all but two other statewide offices. Nowhere is the party’s dominance clearer than in the Assembly, where the leader of the minority Republicans, Scott Baugh (R-Huntington Beach), raised $230,640 in the first six months of the year--a period when Villaraigosa was collecting $1.4 million.

Susan Rasky, an acting associate professor at UC Berkeley who is writing a book on political consulting, said the fund-raising frenzy is a result of several factors--the influence of term limits, the spiraling cost of campaigning in California and the looming once-a-decade requirement to redraw political districts to reflect changes in population.

The next reapportionment of legislative and congressional districts will be in 2001, and the party in power will fashion them to its advantage for the next 10 years.

“The guys elected next time will draw the lines,” Rasky said. “Nothing can be more critical than stuffing the Legislature with members of your own party.”

For Villaraigosa particularly, she said, term limits make fund-raising more difficult, and it is not surprising that he has resorted to glitz and gimmicks to make his money-raising events more appealing. Term limits prevent Assembly members from serving more than six years and state senators more than eight.


“There’s something about being an outgoing speaker in a term-limited world,” Rasky said. “You have fewer ways and a shorter time to demonstrate your power. Villaraigosa is a lame duck, and it’s been nipping at his heels for two years.”

The speaker insists his problem is not that he is a short-timer but that the cost of campaigning in California is skyrocketing. In the last election, it cost Democrats $13 million to fund Assembly campaigns. For the next one, he predicts, the price tag will rise.

“I’m raising this money to keep a Democratic majority and to fund as many campaigns as I can,” he said. “If I wasn’t raising money and I lost the speakership, you’d be writing, ‘Well, he didn’t do his job.’ ”