Anyone who closely follows American politics runs the risk of becoming inured to the role that money plays in the process. Even before the Supreme Court's infamous —and somewhat misunderstood — ruling in Citizens United, the amount of money in elections was soaring, breaking records pretty much every cycle. The numbers are so big that voters seem overwhelmed by the subject. Many just tune it out.
And yet, the subject continues to haunt politics at all levels, and one local race this year offers a sobering reminder of how far down the rabbit hole election financing has descended. In the state Senate race for California's 26th District — a spirited contest that features two Democrats, Ben Allen and Sandra Fluke — a single donor has spent more than $1 million trying to elect Allen. That's considerably more than all of Allen's other supporters combined, and it's nearly as much as Fluke has raised in total, from about 5,000 individual contributors.
The donor is Bill Bloomfield, a wealthy businessman and Republican-turned-Independent who last made political waves two years ago with his self-financed effort to defeat Rep. Henry Waxman. Bloomfield is an affable guy and a generous political donor; he's given to Neel Kashkari's gubernatorial campaign and Marshall Tuck's campaign for superintendent of public instruction, among others.
But his support for Allen, an attorney and member of the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District board, is in a whole different category, both for the overall amount of money he's put into the race and for the proportion of the campaign's total spending that it represents. And he's not letting up: Over the course of two days last week, Bloomfield spent more than $139,000 on Allen's behalf.
Naturally, Fluke, an activist and attorney who first came to national attention when she was called a slut by Rush Limbaugh after testifying before Congress on birth control, is agitated by Bloomfield's largesse. Lindsay Bubar, Fluke's campaign consultant, said Bloomfield's donations underscore the need for campaign finance reform and raise questions about his motives. She charged that Bloomfield was engaged in "an attempt to buy the election" for Allen, adding: "Voters should take a close look at that and ask if they are voting for the candidate on the ballot or the donor writing a huge check."
Bloomfield acknowledges that his contributions may cause some to wonder why he's giving so freely, but he insists he has no personal stake in the race. When I asked him last week why he was playing such a major role, he responded, "For the very simple reason that we [Bloomfield and his wife] think Ben Allen would make a fabulous state senator."
Bloomfield added that he's known Allen for a year or so and admires his commitment to education as well as his personal integrity. Bloomfield also said he's impressed by those who have lined up behind Allen, including Waxman and L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky.
For the record, I like Allen too. Like Fluke, he is smart and articulate, and he has a strong record of work in politics, education and community life. Just because he has a huge benefactor doesn't mean there's anything wrong with him; indeed, one of the quirks of independent expenditures is that candidates can't stop them even if they want to because they are, by definition, done independently of the candidate.
Moreover, the result of Bloomfield's spending is hardly destructive (unless you're Fluke, of course). It's mostly paid for benign mailers laying out Allen's credentials and identifying some of his prominent backers. Bloomfield's money isn't being used to launch ugly attacks, as is sometimes the case.
Citing all that, Eric Hacopian, Allen's campaign director, acknowledged that there's some risk to having a single donor play such a prominent role in an election, but he argued that voters in this case need not worry. That's because, as he said, "It is very clear to everyone that Mr. Bloomfield has no vested personal interest in the outcome of this election."
Still, it's hard to shake the feeling that something's wrong with a system that prevents a contributor from giving more than $4,100 to a candidate (the limit in California legislative races) but allows that same contributor to spend $1 million to get the same candidate elected to the same office.
I asked Bloomfield about that, and he acknowledged that it was legitimate to question the existing campaign laws. But he emphasized, correctly, that he's merely playing by the same rules as everyone else, albeit with far more resources than most.
"Is it fair? Not fair?" he asked. "It is what it is."