The Big Spenders on the Side

Times Staff Writer

His name won’t appear anywhere on the ballot when voters go to the polls June 6. But few Californians are having more impact on the governor’s race than wealthy developer Angelo K. Tsakopoulos.

Tsakopoulos and his daughter Eleni have poured $6 million into a television ad campaign that has revived state Treasurer Phil Angelides’ candidacy for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination against his far-wealthier rival, Controller Steve Westly.

The contribution limits imposed by voters six years ago don’t apply to Angelides’ angel, whose seven-figure spending spree is separate from the candidate’s own campaign.

California puts no restrictions on “independent” expenditures -- campaign efforts that by law must not be coordinated with the candidates they help.

Direct donations to Angelides, a Tsakopoulos friend and business partner for decades, are capped at $22,300, as they are for all other gubernatorial candidates this year.


The Sacramento developer’s independent effort is, so far, the costliest one in the 2006 campaign.

But Tsakopoulos is not alone: Dentists, Realtors, lawyers, casino interests, optometrists and many others are waging campaigns for the candidates of their choice.

Interest groups are spending heavily in the primary. They know that most California districts heavily favor one party, so whoever wins in June will probably win in November.

Campaign finance reports show that this year, $11.6 million has been spent on independent campaigns -- and the sum is rising by hundreds of thousands of dollars a day.

“It costs a certain amount of money to run a campaign,” said Darry Sragow, a Democratic consultant overseeing the California Chamber of Commerce’s independent campaign to elect moderate Democrats. “When that amount of money becomes difficult to raise by candidates, mechanisms are inevitably created to ensure that there is adequate money.”

Independent campaigns have many trappings of candidate campaigns -- but without the candidate. They involve consultants, some of whom specialize in representing interest groups. These people write candidate mailers, put up billboards, pay for polling, produce television and radio spots and buy airtime, essentially mirroring what candidate campaigns do.

Voters in the Whittier area may think they’re simply deciding between Democratic Assemblymen Rudy Bermudez and Ron Calderon to replace termed-out Sen. Martha Escutia (D-Whittier). But the big-money battle in the race features the insurance industry on Calderon’s behalf and the state prison guards union in favor of Bermudez, who is a state parole officer and a member of the guards union.

Campaigns funded largely by insurance firms and Realtors have reported spending $362,000 for brochures and other material touting Calderon, a moderate on business issues who has cast votes siding with the insurance industry.

The California Correctional Peace Officers Assn. and its allies have answered with $172,000 for cable television time and brochures to help Bermudez.

In the La Puente-Baldwin Park area, the Assembly race is between Democrats Renee Chavez and Ed Hernandez. Or is it?

Optometrists have poured more than $165,000 into an independent effort to elect Hernandez, who is an optometrist, is married to an optometrist and is past president of the California Optometric Assn.

Like many interest groups, optometrists hope to elect one of their own to the Legislature.

“We think it is critical, particularly when there is an issue confronting our profession, to have someone fully conversant with our issues,” said Tim Hart of the optometric group.

On legislative matters, optometrists regularly battle ophthalmologists, who are spending money, albeit modestly, on behalf of Chavez, a La Puente councilwoman married to termed-out Assemblyman Ed Chavez (D-La Puente).

Optometrists test sight and recently won limited authority from California lawmakers to write prescriptions. Ophthalmologists are physicians who generally seek to limit optometrists’ duties.

A hotly contested Assembly primary costs $500,000 or more. But state law limits labor unions and many trade groups to giving no more than $6,700 to a legislative candidate; an individual can give no more than $3,300.

Political consultants say it’s all but impossible for legislative candidates to raise enough money in those increments to wage a winning campaign.

“The way California’s contribution laws are written, it doesn’t take a genius to know that independent expenditures will sway elections,” Hart said.

One high-priced independent campaign is taking place in the San Fernando Valley. A committee calling itself Californians Allied for a Prosperous Economy has amassed $200,000 and is spending heavily on behalf of L.A. Councilman Alex Padilla in his run for a state Senate seat.

Californians Allied is a creation of 21st Century Insurance, car dealers and Californians for Civil Justice Reform, an organization of insurance companies and corporations that seeks to limit lawsuits.

Padilla’s foe is Assemblywoman Cindy Montanez (D-San Fernando). She carried legislation to give car buyers more rights, evidently incurring car dealers’ wrath. A union representing hotel and restaurant workers, and a group of Indian tribes with casinos have spent $110,000 to help elect her.

“It is simple: The car dealers are trying to send a message to consumer advocates like myself that ‘if you mess with us, we’re going to open the vault for your opponents,’ ” Montanez said. “It is dirty money and underhanded tactics.”

Padilla campaign spokeswoman Rose Kapolczynski said she was unaware of the car dealers’ effort until they reported it to the secretary of state’s office as required. She said candidates and their consultants never know if an independent effort will be helpful.

“Every campaign has a strategy to win. We have issues we’re emphasizing. And we have no idea if any of these committees are going to be on message,” she said.

Candidates often joust over whether independent campaigns are truly conducted at arm’s length. Westly’s attorneys filed a complaint with the Fair Political Practices Commission alleging that Angelides and Tsakopoulos have coordinated their efforts -- a charge Angelides denies. Tsakopoulos could not be reached for comment.

The commission, responsible for enforcing campaign finance law, has rarely taken action on such allegations. Its staff could locate only one case in which it levied a fine against a supposedly independent committee, in a Richmond City Council race, that turned out to be linked to a candidate.

Angelides has raised about $4.6 million this year, enough to air television commercials statewide for perhaps 10 days. Altogether he has raised $38 million since taking office in 1999.

Westly, who made a fortune as an early executive at EBay, has poured $32.5 million of his own money into his campaign and has blanketed the state with ads since early in the year. There have been no independent campaigns on Westly’s behalf.

There are no restrictions on the amount wealthy candidates can spend on their own campaigns. Angelides could not compete -- until Tsakopoulos entered the fray. As a result, pro-Angelides commercials featuring police officers, firefighters and teachers extolling the candidate have been airing for weeks.

“If Angelo Tsakopoulos gets away with this, it makes a mockery of state laws regarding independent expenditure campaigns,” said Garry South, Westly’s lead strategist, adding that it should be Angelides’ “tough luck” that he cannot match Westly’s spending.

Angelides has had no bigger patron than Tsakopoulos, who gave him his start as a developer. In the last decade, Tsakopoulos and members of his family have poured $3 million directly into his protege’s various campaigns. Added to the independent expenditure, those donations bring the Tsakopoulos clan’s total spending on Angelides to more than $9 million.

Tsakopoulos came to the United States from Greece in 1951, when he was 15. In an interview with The Times last year, he recalled shining shoes and shoveling snow for money as a kid in Chicago and coming west, where he worked on farms and enrolled at what is now Cal State Sacramento.

He has become one of the most significant land developers in the Sacramento Valley and owns several buildings in downtown Sacramento. He is also a major Democratic donor, having been host to fundraisers for President Clinton and other national figures. He was among Gov. Gray Davis’ six-figure donors and was part of Davis’ entourage on a 1999 trip to Greece.

Angelides said Tsakopoulos has never spoken to him about state government -- though Tsakopoulos has a significant lobby presence related to development issues in the Capitol.

“We’re Greek Americans. We love democracy,” Angelides said. “We love politics, and we know how to argue.”

Angelides added that he opposes the use of independent expenditures and favors public financing of campaigns.

Joining Tsakopoulos in paying for the ads is the powerful California Teachers Assn., which has contributed $1 million to the advertising purchase. California Professional Firefighters, a union, takes credit for organizing the campaign but has spent only about $25,000 on it. A spokesman for the union refused to discuss the campaign.

Times staff writer Jordan Rau contributed to this report.