I really should lay off Charles T. Munger Jr., who’s already been on the receiving end of plenty of snark from The Times’ Opinion section. But as I thought Thursday about the millions of dollars Munger wasted in support of Proposition 32, an initiative to curb unions’ power to raise campaign cash, it struck me how bold that play was. Or foolish. And how ignorant of recent history.
The measure was billed as a good-government, campaign-finance reform effort that would have reduced the influence of special interests by banning direct contributions to candidates from corporations and unions. As recent elections have shown, though, banning direct contributions doesn’t make a whit of difference to those who want to throw their political weight around. There’s a parallel campaign universe populated by political action committees, or PACs, and nonprofits that spend huge amounts of money on attack ads, slate mailers and get-out-the-vote efforts.
The real meat of Proposition 32 was the prohibition on corporations and unions deducting money from paychecks for political use. That would have cut the power to the unions’ campaign machine. Naturally, organized labor saw the measure as an existential threat and went into overdrive to defeat it, just as it did with a similar measure (Proposition 75) backed by then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2005.
Munger, a physicist whose billionaire father is investment guru Warren Buffett’s partner, put at least $29 million of his considerable personal fortune into the campaign to pass Proposition 32. Other big checks, albeit not that big, came in from such business executives as former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, software billionaire Thomas M. Sieibel, real estate magnate Larry T. Smith, entrepreneur Howard H. Leach, billionaire former broadcaster A. Jerrold Perenchio and investors Stephen D. Bechtel Jr., William E. Oberndorf, Timothy Draper and B. Wayne Hughes.
By spending prodigiously to support a measure billed as a firewall against “special-interest money,” Munger and company hoped to overcome the predictable union blitz against it. They may also have hoped that unions would be so occupied with defeating Proposition 32 that they wouldn’t have the bandwidth to support Proposition 30, the tax increase Gov. Jerry Brown sought on high-income Californians.
But one thing organized labor does particularly well is turn out Democratic voters. So by picking a fight with labor, the pro-Proposition 32 faction risked losing not just on that measure but also on other fights important to conservatives, including Proposition 30 and races for Congress and the Legislature.
That’s what happened in 2005, when three other so-called reform measures were crushed alongside Proposition 75. And after Tuesday’s election, not only did Proposition 30 win, but Republicans were almost certain to wind up with four fewer seats in Congress, two in the state Senate and, surprisingly, two in the Assembly. If those losses hold, Democrats will hold two-thirds of the seats in each chamber -- for the first time since the 19th century.
Yes, the new district lines drawn by an independent citizens commission played a roll in that shrinkage, as did President Obama’s candidacy. Nevertheless, I wonder how different those results might have been had Proposition 32 not been on the ballot. Had they known that a Democratic super-majority in the Legislature was one possible outcome, would Munger and company still have wanted to make that bet?
Follow Jon Healey on Twitter @jcahealey