A week before Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger travels to New York for what is expected to be a lucrative fundraising dinner, his office is conceding that it was “probably unfortunate” for aides to have sought donations of up to half a million dollars.
But Schwarzenegger is not about to pull back in his pursuit of campaign money -- even as he prepares to roll out legislation aimed at dampening the influence of campaign donors. The governor will remain aggressive in collecting money for various ballot initiatives he has promised to put before voters, said Rob Stutzman, the governor’s communications director.
At a news conference Tuesday devoted to the first 100 days in office -- a milestone that comes Feb. 24 -- Stutzman faced questions about the governor’s fundraising. Since the beginning of the year, Schwarzenegger has netted $5.2 million -- a pace outstripping that of former Gov. Gray Davis. Schwarzenegger is using the money to build public support for Propositions 57 and 58. The first would authorize $15 billion in borrowing to cover state debts; the second is a balanced budget amendment. Both are on the March 2 ballot.
Because the donations are feeding an account named the California Recovery Team dedicated to ballot measures, individual contributions are not capped. If the money were moving into a personal campaign fund, donations would be limited to $21,200 apiece under Proposition 34, which was passed in 2000.
Stutzman said: “The governor is not raising money since the first of the year for his campaign treasury.... It’s all going toward the ballot measures, which is consistent with his promise to voters to take issues directly to them.”
Next week, Schwarzenegger is to attend a private dinner at the Manhattan home of Robert Wood Johnson IV, arranged in part by New York Gov. George Pataki. The minimum donation is $50,000; the maximum is $500,000.
To invite contributions on such a scale “unfairly allows characterizations to be made about the governor’s fundraising -- that somehow there’s something audacious about it -- which there isn’t,” Stutzman said.
He drew distinctions between the governor’s fundraising and that of Davis, suggesting that in the latter’s administration, campaign money swayed policy.
He said: “I have yet to see anyone suggest a legitimate nexus between fundraising and governmental decisions.” In one instance, he said, a donor at a fundraising event was grousing that he wasn’t given a chance to talk to the governor about a policy issue.
Schwarzenegger returned the donation, said Stutzman, who would not identify the contributor. “So Californians remain confident this is a governor who can’t be bought and money does not influence governmental decisions,” he said.
Steve Maviglio, a former spokesman for Davis, countered: “It’s a little disingenuous given the governor’s ‘I don’t need your money’ pledge to put his hand out at every opportunity. It’s almost like he needs to break the box office record for fundraising. He’s raising millions of dollars in a campaign where there’s no organized opposition.”
This week, the governor’s office is trying to round up sponsors for a bill meant to curb fundraising abuses. The measure would create a blackout period in which fundraising would stop -- from the day the governor’s budget is introduced in January, until the time it is passed by the Legislature.
But the ban would not apply to accounts such as Schwarzenegger’s California Recovery Team that focus on ballot measures. The thinking is that the potentially corrupting influence of campaign donations is not an issue if the money is reserved for passing or defeating initiatives or referenda.
But students of campaign finance said the exception undermines efforts to clean up the system. If Schwarzenegger’s political fortunes are tied to Propositions 57 and 58, the same contribution limits should apply, some said.
“What’s the difference between my giving him $20,000 for his reelection campaign and my giving $20,000 for his ballot measures?” asked Robert Stern of the Center for Governmental Studies. “This is a make-or-break election for him in March -- not quite as important as the first election, but it may decide whether he runs for reelection.”