Seventy years ago, another Austrian ruled California. His name was Arthur Samish, the son of an immigrant who became the most powerful lobbyist in state history. At 300 pounds, the outsized man was master of leveraging campaign contributions and personal favors for the oil, movie studio, insurance and tobacco industries.
This year will prove that little has changed — California politics remains dominated by money.
The 2006 election is destined to set another record in political spending — cash will pour in from oil and tobacco companies, powerful unions, millionaires and corporate donors. They will unload more than $200 million to finance the governor’s race, a host of initiatives, the Democratic and Republican parties, and various front groups.
Few issues have bedeviled California voters more than campaign reform. In the wake of Watergate, state voters approved the landmark Political Reform Act of 1974. It required detailed public disclosure of contributions and created the Fair Political Practices Commission. Three subsequent voter-approved initiatives to limit donations were mired in the courts.
Dependent on the Legislature and governor for funding, the FPPC doesn’t have enough money or power for full-scale investigations. Six years ago, voters approved Proposition 34, but it did little to stop the flow of special-interest money. It simply made political parties and “soft money” committees more powerful: donations to those groups remain unlimited.
It’s difficult to find a campaign donor without a tie to some powerful interest in Sacramento. Elected officials say donations don’t influence their votes. They frequently quote Jesse M. Unruh, the legendary former Assembly Speaker, who said: “If you can’t take their money, drink their booze, eat their food, screw their women and vote against them, you don’t belong here.”
But another quote from Unruh may be more operative this year: “Money is the mother’s milk of politics.”