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Record Independent Campaign Spending Sparks Concern

Times Staff Writer

Last year’s Los Angeles city election set a record for independent expenditures by unions, corporations and individuals, for a total of $4.9 million spent outside the city’s system of campaign finance limits, according to a study released Tuesday.

Organized labor accounted for 86% of the independent spending, including nearly $640,000 by the California Teacher’s Assn. to support then-City Councilman Antonio Villaraigosa for mayor, the city Ethics Commission review found.

And 96% of the independent expenditures occurred 30 days or less before the election.

Commission President Gil Garcetti and Vice President Bill Boyarsky, who were troubled by the study’s findings, renewed a call for full public financing of election campaigns.

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“You see a huge increase in the role of independent expenditures, and I think it’s just the tip of the iceberg of what’s coming,” said Garcetti, the former Los Angeles County district attorney. “The only way to keep a level playing field is to have full public financing.”

Boyarsky, a former Times editor, said a so-called clean money system under study by the City Council would help address the huge amount of special interest funding that is dwarfing the city’s program of partially matching contributions.

“Just on the face of it,” Boyarsky said of the report, “it shows that our system we have now is inadequate.”

Garcetti said he would bring up the issue at the panel’s next meeting, in March.

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The 87-page study examined city elections in the 15 years since voters approved a package of campaign finance reforms, including one that provides candidates with public money if they agree to spending limits.

Currently, individual campaign contributors can give no more than $1,000 to candidates for citywide offices. But an individual or corporation can spend an unlimited amount -- known as an independent expenditure campaign -- to support a candidate, as long as it is not done at the request of the candidate.

Such campaigns often back candidates by directly sending out mail, purchasing television and radio ads and operating phone banks. For example, labor unions commonly pay to send mail or make phone calls to their members in support of a candidate.

The study found that such independent expenditures ballooned from $323,000 in 1993 to $3.2 million in 2001. The total in last year’s elections, which featured races for mayor, city attorney, city controller and eight council seats, jumped a “dramatic” 54% from 2001, the study said.

Most independent expenditures -- 87% -- occurred in the mayor’s race. They represented $14.4 million in total spent by incumbent James K. Hahn and challenger Villaraigosa.

Since 1989, candidates who received the largest independent expenditure in their race won 55% of the time.

“While that spending does not guarantee candidate success, increasing numbers of candidates elected since 2001 have been supported by independent spending, and few since that time have had success without it,” the study concluded.

City Councilwoman Wendy Greuel, who is pushing for full public financing, said the study would be good ammunition.

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“It validates the need for reform in our campaign finance system,” she said.

The commission study also suggests that city officials revisit the 1993 imposition of term limits, which prevent elected officials from serving more than two four-year terms.

The study found that incumbents appear to be nearly unbeatable in their second election, partly because some potential challengers decide to wait four years for the office to be open on the ballot.

“Ironically, term limits appeared to have created a single, eight-year term for city officeholders,” the report said.

Garcetti said the city should consider alternatives, including doing away with term limits, or extending them to three or four terms.

“The second term is basically a gimme, with nobody challenging the incumbent,” Garcetti said. “That was the first time I have seen that finding in writing.”

The report identifies City Hall lobbyists as playing a significant role in city elections.

In last year’s races, 298 lobbyists and 134 lobbying firms accounted for nearly $600,000 in contributions to 18 candidates. Lobbyists also engaged in fundraising to bring in an additional $450,000 for 14 of the candidates.

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On the positive side, in the pre-reform elections of 1989 and 1991, incumbents made up only 18% of all candidates but spent 64% of the money in the elections. Since the reforms were adopted, incumbents have made up 15% of the candidates but spent just 19% of the money.


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