What appeared to be a straightforward proposal by Assemblyman Lloyd Levine to neuter California’s dogs and cats instead met massive opposition and may have spawned a potentially powerful lobby that now plans to play a significant role fighting for pet owners’ rights nationwide.
When Levine surrendered last week and withdrew his bill from consideration for this year, it was in front of an overflow crowd of animal owners at the state Capitol, many of whom were wearing lapel stickers bearing the lettering “PetPAC.”
The brainchild of Bill Hemby, a retired San Francisco cop who raises and shows Russian wolfhounds, PetPAC started from nothing three months ago and today has signed up 35,000 supporters. They helped raise more than $200,000 to defeat Levine’s bill that would have required Californians to spay or neuter their pets or face stiff fines.
Tom Hogen-Esch, a political scientist at Cal State Northridge, said the Levine bill woke a sleeping giant.
“That type of legislation Americans find extremely intrusive, so it really sparked a backlash,” Hogen-Esch said. “Pets, for a lot of people, are like a member of their family.”
Hemby said his goal now is to build the membership to 1 million pet owners and animal lovers by next year’s elections and to start a separate political action committee capable of contributing $300,000 to candidates supportive of pet owners’ rights.
Levine is at the top of the list of those legislators who may be targeted for defeat by the group’s political committee, sources said. Being forced out by term limits unless a ballot measure in February extends his possible tenure, Levine is running for the Senate seat being vacated by Sheila Kuehl next year.
There are 9 million dog and cat owners in California, and Hemby envisions his group becoming a national force for animal breeders, trainers and owners.
“When AB 1634 was introduced, I just knew that in order to impact that bill, we had to create a political action group,” said Hemby, a veteran advocate in Sacramento for the California Organization of Police and Sheriffs.
“The pet owners realized that they had been sitting on the sidelines watching their rights erode and not doing anything about it.”
Hemby, 69 and bearded, has a knack for political showmanship. When the Senate Local Government Committee took up the bill on Wednesday, Lassie, the canine film star, was sitting on the floor in the front row.
Former state Sen. David Roberti, who tried unsuccessfully to launch a political action committee for pet owners in the 1980s called RoarPac, believes the timing and issues are right for Hemby to build a powerful new organization.
“They, along with all animal-oriented groups, have the ability to mobilize a large, emotional membership. That is pretty powerful,” Roberti said.
However, critics of PetPAC challenge the assertion that the group represents the views of the majority of pet owners, thousands of which supported AB 1634 as a way to address the 454,000 unwanted dogs and cats put to death in California shelters each year. The measure provided exemptions for show, breeder and work animals.
Levine, a Democrat from Van Nuys, and other backers of the bill note that many of the supporters of PetPAC are people who make money from animals, including breeders, trainers and veterinarians.
“It’s ridiculous that they oppose this bill. They are doing it out of selfish interest, for financial gain,” said Ontario businessman Chris Majeska, one of thousands of the legislation’s supporters who flooded the Capitol with e-mails and letters. Majeska has eight dogs, mostly mutts he found roaming the streets.
Levine and others say PetPAC crossed the line in distorting facts and using fear tactics. The group printed posters opposing AB 1634 as the “Pet Extinction Act.” Hemby went on television to allege that the proposed spay rules were part of a campaign by PETA and other extremist groups to “eliminate all dogs and cats in California.”
A similar message was included in TV spots put on Sacramento stations by PetPAC.
“There is a lot of fear and it has been whipped up by my opponents,” Levine said.
“The best way to kill a bill is by creating fear and confusion, and they have done a good job of that.”
He called the “Pet Extinction Act” posters “ludicrous.”
At one point Judie Mancuso, a campaign director for the bill, referred to the opposition as the “PetPAC monsters.”
Mancuso said the tactics of PetPAC were inappropriate. “They really distorted the facts to scare people,” she said.
Kelley Moran, state campaign director for the fledgling group, said the ads refrained from personal attack, although he acknowledges he raised questions about Levine’s qualifications.
“He is not a pet owner. I don’t believe he understands what being a pet owner is all about,” Moran said.
PetPAC launched a slick Internet website to solicit support from throughout the country. It was so effective that backers of the bill put up a counter-website called “PetPAC Nonsense.”
Hemby, who has seven borzoi dogs at his home in Grass Valley, said he received about $10,000 from PetPAC for three months of work on the Levine bill. Moran has received the same amount.
Hemby said he started the campaign to protect his and other pet owners’ rights, not to get rich, and said the committee did not accept money from any major corporations.
The largest contributor to PetPAC was the Cat Fanciers Assn., which donated $25,000 to help the group rally opponents, organize a massive letter writing campaign and air television ads against the Levine bill.
The second-biggest contribution was $5,000 from the Ventura Dog Fanciers Assn., according to Moran, who is also director of political affairs for the California Organization of Police and Sheriffs and previously worked on campaigns for Jessica’s Law and former Rep. Richard Lehman of California.
Joan Miller, the legislative coordinator for the Cat Fanciers Assn., said the opposition behind PetPAC is sincere and not based on financial gain, and she gave the group a lot of credit in helping to defeat Levine.
“They provided expertise,” said Miller, a San Diego resident. “They knew how to bring people together. There was a huge outpouring.
“This bill really shocked a lot of people all over the country. I had calls today from people in Minnesota and Washington and Texas. The whole country watched this over the Internet.”
The American Kennel Club launched a separate campaign against the bill.
Levine and PetPAC are likely to cross swords again in January, when the legislator plans to revive his bill, but the group is already setting its sights on legislation in New Jersey, Indiana and Kentucky that its leaders believe infringe on pet owners’ rights.
Levine is skeptical that the group will become a major force.
“I don’t think the group is legitimate,” he said. “It formed for this legislation. I don’t know if they will be able to sustain it beyond this bill.”