California lawmakers can’t take lobbyist donations — unless they’re running for Congress

Photo illustration of the US Capitol building with money spilling out from under the dome.
(Photo illustration by Jim Cooke / Los Angeles Times; photos via Getty Images)

State Sen. Susan Rubio has a powerful position in Sacramento. As chair of the Insurance Committee, the Baldwin Park Democrat can help pass or kill any legislation affecting that industry.

Due to a law meant to prevent corruption, Rubio can’t accept campaign donations from insurance lobbyists — or any other lobbyists — as she raises money for her 2026 reelection to the Legislature. State law forbids California lobbyists from donating to the campaigns of state lawmakers.

But there are no such restrictions on lobbyists donating to campaigns for federal office, even when the candidate is a state lawmaker. So as Rubio runs for Congress this year, she can take donations for her federal campaign from lobbyists who may seek to influence her votes in Sacramento.

And she is.

Rubio has received nearly $43,300 in contributions from registered state lobbyists in her campaign to replace retiring Rep. Grace F. Napolitano in California’s 31st Congressional District. It’s a sliver of her overall fundraising as of Feb. 14, but the most lobbyist money of any California lawmaker who is running for federal office. Many of those who donated to Rubio’s congressional campaign represent companies that lobby bills that are heard before committees she sits on as a state legislator, including the Insurance Committee and those that oversee policy related to healthcare, alcohol regulations as well as energy and utilities.


Eight state legislators are running for Congress this year. Six have received lobbyist donations, in amounts that vary widely, adding up to $96,090.

The donations are legal and make up a small portion of the candidates’ overall fundraising. Still, some watchdogs say they should be prohibited because of the risk that lobbyists’ money could shape lawmakers’ decisions in the work they are doing at the state level.

“It doesn’t mean they’ll vote in their favor, but the possibility that could happen exists,” said Sean McMorris, a program manager at the government watchdog group Common Cause.

His organization was part of the coalition that 50 years ago introduced California’s Political Reform Act, the law that bans lobbyist donations to state lawmakers.

Bob Stern, co-author of the law, said the state prohibition was put in place because “legislators were receiving huge amounts from people who were lobbying them, and we thought there should be a disconnect between lobbying and campaign contributions.”

In practice, Stern said, the prohibition’s effects were limited, since the companies hiring lobbyists could still give directly to candidates, as can affiliated political action committees. But there was “symbolism” to the separation, he said.


Rubio’s campaign manager, Giovanni Ruiz, said that all contributions she had received from individuals were “solely based on mutually respectful relationships,” and that she has opposed issues that donors lobbied for in the past.

Ruiz also noted that Rubio was being massively outspent by her opponent Gil Cisneros, who has put $4 million of his own money into his campaign.

The race has drawn 11 candidates, who come from all over the district. About half have served in public office before.

Feb. 1, 2024

Silicon Valley congressional candidate Assemblymember Evan Low (D-Campbell) received $21,650 from lobbyists, making up 2% of his fundraising. He joined the late-breaking race to replace retiring Rep. Anna G. Eshoo (D-Menlo Park)
in early December, just months before the March primary.

State Sen. Dave Min (D-Irvine), who is running to replace Rep. Katie Porter in an Orange County seat, received about $16,500 in lobbyist donations, accounting for 1% of total fundraising since he launched his campaign at the beginning of 2023.

Assemblymember Laura Friedman (D-Glendale), who is vying to replace Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank), received $4,000, and her opponent state Sen. Anthony Portantino (D-Burbank) received $6,500 from lobbyists. Those totals account for less than 1% of each of their fundraising.

Portantino and Friedman have both been running for the Los Angeles-area
congressional seat for more than a year.

Central Valley congressional candidate state Sen. Melissa Hurtado (D-Sanger) received about $4,000 from lobbyists — a sum that accounted for 6.1% of her fundraising since she launched her campaign in August 2023.

Hurtado told The Times that lawmakers should be able to receive those donations but acknowledged that “money has the ability to corrupt people, it’s plain and simple.”


Since August, Hurtado has raised less than $100,000; she said she is in debt from putting her own money into the race. The only money she doesn’t accept is from the cannabis industry, she told The Times.

Friedman went further, saying she sees the potential issues and would support a law that prevents federal campaigns from accepting money from state lobbyists.

Democrats Mike Feuer, Laura Friedman and Anthony Portantino are among the leading candidates to succeed Schiff in a very blue district.

Feb. 1, 2024

Friedman noted that her campaign was turning down all corporate PAC money and described that as a far more salient issue in races such as hers. She characterized the lobbyist contributions she and her colleagues had received as small compared with the “avalanche of money out there” from clients of the lobbyists.

Portantino, Low and Min did not respond to requests for comment.

Two state legislators running for Congress have not received any lobbyist donations: Sen. Bob Archuleta (D-Pico Rivera), who is also running for Napolitano’s San Gabriel Valley seat and launched his campaign last summer, and Assemblymember Vince Fong (R-Bakersfield), who is running for former House Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s vacant Bakersfield seat. Fong launched his campaign in December.

Because of the limited disclosures required by the state, lobbyists are not required to publicly report which lawmakers they have attempted to influence on various bills, making it difficult to draw direct lines between their lobbying efforts and their donations. But campaign finance and lobbying records show that several of the candidates have received donations from lobbyists who work with companies seeking to influence policy in the areas in which they have power, based on committee positions.

Photo of Sen. Susan Rubio (D-Baldwin Park) debating legislation at the state Capitol
Sen. Susan Rubio (D-Baldwin Park) is one of several state lawmakers running for Congress.
(Robert Gourley / Los Angeles Times)

Sacramento lobbyist Mandy Lee gave $3,300, the maximum allowable donation, to Rubio. Her firm represents the American Property Casualty Insurance Assn., a major trade group for home, auto and business insurers. The association lobbied on bills heard in the Rubio-chaired Senate Insurance Committee. Lee also donated $500 to Min.

Rubio’s spokesperson noted that the senator’s relationship with Lee long predated her election to the Legislature.

Rubio also received $2,000 from lobbyist Paul Gladfelty, whose firm represents the Travelers insurance company.

“It is not uncommon for state lobbyists to make personal contributions to congressional candidates we know and believe in, which state law allows. Prior to the Senator running for Legislative office, I had the opportunity to establish a personal friendship,” Gladfelty said by text message, adding that his friendship with Rubio “exists regardless of her committee assignments.”

With longtime lawmakers leaving the House, Sen. Feinstein’s death and a Californian no longer holding the speaker’s gavel, the state’s Capitol power is at an ebb.

Dec. 14, 2023

Lobbyists Soyla Fernández and Kirk Kimmelshue, owners of Fernández Jensen Kimmelshue Government Affairs, both donated to the campaigns of Min and Rubio. Their firm’s client list includes the Regional Water Authority and Northern California Water Assn., which both lobbied on bills that were heard in the Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Water that Min chairs.

Their firm also represents Southern California Edison, which routinely lobbies on bills in the Energy, Utilities and Communications Committee that Min and Rubio both sit on; the Anheuser-Busch beer company, which lobbies the committee that regulates alcohol, of which Rubio is a member; and the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, which lobbies the health committee that Rubio sits on.


Lobbyist RJ Cervantes, whose clients include trade associations for cryptocurrency and electronic payment companies, gave $3,300 to Low, who serves as co-chair of the Legislative Technology & Innovation Caucus, a group of lawmakers who want to foster a tech-friendly climate in California.

Cervantes, Kimmelshue, Fernández and Lee did not respond to requests for comment.

Jessica Levinson, an election law professor at Loyola Law School and former president of the Los Angeles Ethics Commission, sees the situation as less clear-cut than Common Cause’s McMorris does. She said she doesn’t think it is unethical for state lawmakers to accept lobbyist donations to their congressional campaigns, since there is “a very real opening in the law” that allows them.

“It’s up to the voters to determine if this is something that bothers them,” Levinson said. “My guess is that for most voters, it’s pretty far down on the list.”