Some California legislators pepper constituents with taxpayer-funded mailers

The glossy mailers arrived day after day, tucked into voters’ mailboxes in eastern San Diego County. Each was from Assemblyman Joel Anderson, a San Diego Republican vying to become a state senator.

Each had the words “protecting taxpayers” etched under his name and the seal of the state Assembly. What the nearly 350,000 promotional pieces didn’t say is that they were designed, printed and mailed at taxpayer expense.

The deluge came in the final four days before a blackout period that bars lawmakers from sending mailers on the public dime in the run-up to the June 8 primary election.

Since the beginning of 2009, Anderson has been the single biggest user — some ethics experts say abuser — of the Legislature’s more than $4.6-million direct-mail operation, according to legislative records. A Times review of every mass mail piece sent by state legislators since Jan. 1, 2009, shows Anderson was not alone in finding political advantage in the publicly funded mailers.

Embattled incumbents or those angling for higher office were among the heaviest users. The Legislature’s six biggest mail senders — all Assembly members — were fighting for their political lives: They narrowly won election in 2008, were threatened by recall or are running for higher office.

Legislators’ mailings: A chart accompanying a story in Saturday’s Section A on taxpayer-funded mailers listed Tom Berryhill (R-Modesto) as among the lawmakers who have sent the most such items since Jan. 1, 2009. The person listed should have been Bill Berryhill (R-Ceres). —

Anderson defended his use of the mail program.

“Maybe I should hide under a rock when I’m running for office,” he said. “Are you serious? What a ridiculous statement! … We’re voting on taxes; I shouldn’t send out anything to my constituents based on where I’m standing on tax increases?”

The avalanche of mail, he said, had nothing to do with the looming election and was intended to garner constituent support for his legislation. Anderson has spent $246,297 in taxpayer money to print and send 794,140 mailers since Jan. 1, 2009 — far above the average $39,122 that lawmakers have spent to print and postmark an average of 139,152 mailers each.

Legislators have broad latitude to pepper constituents with updates from the statehouse. The mailing privilege is intended to keep the public informed and distribute service announcements such as where to get a flu shot.

But political strategists say that the mailers are also a major advantage for incumbents seeking reelection or higher office and that they’re one reason why only a single sitting California lawmaker has lost a reelection bid in the last decade. That was Sen. Carole Migden (D- San Francisco), who spent more taxpayer money on mailers than any other state senator in 2007 and 2008, the records show.

“Essentially they’re free campaign mailers paid for by taxpayers under the guise of state business,” said Ray McNally, a veteran GOP strategist.

Assemblywoman Joan Buchanan (D-Alamo) sent 53,000 mailers this year offering a free pancake breakfast to constituents willing to join her on a weekend to “discuss legislative and community issues.” Buchanan, who in 2008 won what had been a Republican seat, faces a contested reelection bid this fall. She has tallied a $114,572 mailing tab since the beginning of 2009.

Another assemblywoman, Mary Salas (D-Chula Vista), has advertised ice cream socials, spaghetti dinners and pancake breakfasts in state-paid mail.

“Anything you can do to keep your name in front of voters works to your advantage,” McNally said. “They’re designed to give voters a sense of, ‘By God, we’re here fighting the good fight for you on issues you care about.’ ”

One legislator under intense pressure to persuade voters that he was on their side last year was Assemblyman Anthony Adams (R-Hesperia).

Talk-radio hosts called for Adams’ head after he provided a crucial vote in February 2009 for a controversial budget package that included temporary tax hikes. A recall effort was launched. His own party moved to censure Adams and his fellow GOP supporters of the budget.

Adams postmarked 56,000 mailers the next month touting the budget pact as a “compromise that invokes the spirit of the Greatest Generation — sacrificing a little to build a stronger California.” The brochures cost taxpayers $15,238.23. A fusillade of mailers followed over the next nine months, as the recall threat loomed and Adams papered his district with 510,000 mailers at a cost of roughly $135,000.

Adams admitted that “anyone would be disingenuous in saying there’s not a political benefit.” But he defended the mailers and their timing. His opponents, he said, “were taking specific issue with a vote in my legislative capacity. I felt it was immensely important that I communicate with them about what it was I did and why I did it.”

When the recall drive failed in November, the stream of Adams mailers dried up. He has sent no mail in 2010 and has announced that he will not seek reelection.

There are some restrictions on the mass mailers. Lawmakers cannot feature pictures of themselves, and their names can be used a limited number of times per mailer. But references to legislation, upcoming district events and requests for constituent feedback are permitted.

Campaign themes sometimes appear anyway. One mailer that Anderson of San Diego sent last fall referred to legislation he said was inspired by reports that his opponent, Riverside County Supervisor Jeff Stone, had lent his county-owned car to his sister. The legislation, which Anderson introduced, would not allow such use of an official car.

The mailer did not mention Stone by name, but it broadcast this message: “Local politicians are using public money as personal slush funds” and featured an image of $100 bills stuffed into a suit jacket.

Assemblywoman Jean Fuller (R-Bakersfield), a candidate for state Senate, recently mailed 45,000 tough-on-crime brochures that feature images of fingerprints, handcuffs and hands clutching prison bars. It warns of federal judges releasing “murderers, rapists and child molesters … into your neighborhood.”

Eric Ziegler, who lives near Bakersfield, was so incensed by the piece that he wrote a letter to the Bakersfield Californian.

Politicians, he wrote, “continue to waste public money on these types of mailers while the state is on the edge of economic collapse.”

The Legislature could restrict the mailing privilege — cap the number of brochures allowed per month, for example — but few expect lawmakers to rein in practices from which they benefit.

“The day you’re elected, your first job is getting reelected,” said Joe Tumate, professor of political communications at San Francisco State. “There is no altruism here.”