Despite claims that it is riddled with loopholes, a controversial bill that would require groups behind political phone attacks to reveal their identity during the call cleared a key Senate committee Wednesday.
The bill was inspired by unsavory telephone campaigning in the recently concluded Los Angeles mayoral race. It was introduced by Assemblyman Herb Wesson (D-Culver City), and it cleared the Senate Committee on Elections and Reapportionment on a 5-1 vote.
But passage of Wesson's bill did not come without dispute. Senate Republican Leader Jim Brulte, who is carrying a similar measure targeting deceptive campaign calls, blasted Wesson's version as toothless.
"I'm going to give Herb the benefit of the doubt that he wants to clean up these types of phone calls," Brulte (R-Rancho Cucamonga) said after the committee hearing. "But in his bill, what we saw in L.A. would still be allowed."
Wesson's bill, AB 690, would prohibit political groups from using campaign money to pay for 1,000 or more calls to voters without clearly stating who authorized and paid for the advertising during the call.
"I wanted to try and get the bad guys" behind dirty ads, Wesson said.
However, Brulte argued that two exemptions in the bill would make it ineffective.
The bill allows candidates, committees and organizations that have filed with the Fair Political Practices Commission to include merely the name of their group, not necessarily the individuals behind it. That, Brulte said, would allow sleazy campaigners to continue with underhanded practices by hiding behind dummy committees.
Moreover, the measure allows the groups behind the ads to simply give out a phone number, rather than state who they are, placing the burden on the voter to get to the source of the calls, Brulte said.
"It is apparent that AB 690 was drafted by a clever campaign consultant," Brulte's office said in a statement.
Wesson called Brulte's claims exaggerated, but said he was willing to work with the Republican leader to resolve objections.
"There was merit in what he said, and we're sifting through that right now," Wesson said.
During this year's closely contested Los Angeles mayoral campaign, a clandestine organization made a series of calls blasting candidate Antonio Villaraigosa. The calls, which mainly targeted Latino voters, featured a woman who called herself Gloria Marina, a clear ploy to trade on the recognizable name of Los Angeles County Supervisor Gloria Molina.
The district attorney's office traced the barrage of automated phone calls to the campaign headquarters of a rival mayoral candidate, U.S. Rep. Xavier Becerra. No charges were filed because the law does not prohibit such tactics, but Becerra's top campaign staff aides were widely pilloried for their involvement in the scheme. Becerra himself has denied knowing about the calls until after they were made.
Another controversial call during the mayoral campaign contained anti-Semitic overtones directed at businessman Steve Soboroff, who is Jewish. No one has been identified as the person behind that call.
Brulte said his bill, SB 3, contains none of the loopholes in Wesson's bill, and would bring the laws governing political campaign phone banks more closely in line with the laws that regulate other forms of campaigning, such as mailings and television ads. It is currently moving through the Assembly.