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State senators give themselves permission to resume raising campaign cash during budget negotiations

Kevin de Leon applauds during Gov. Jerry Brown's state-of-the-state speech on Jan. 21.

Kevin de Leon applauds during Gov. Jerry Brown’s state-of-the-state speech on Jan. 21.

(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

The state Senate voted Thursday to suspend a rule barring campaign fundraising during the budget-writing season after Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León (D-Los Angeles) said the rule was giving an unfair advantage to moneyed special interests opposing incumbents.

The vote was 24-8 to suspend the rule adopted two years ago as part of an effort by the Senate to regain public trust after three of its members were charged with crimes. The suspension is effective immediately.

“After careful review, the Rules Committee has determined that the restrictions are too limiting to apply unilaterally to only one legislative house,” De León said in a floor speech in which he asked for the rule to be suspended. “I do so with reluctance as well as regret.”

With the state budget scheduled for a vote June 15, the blackout period for raising money from special interests that hire lobbyists is set to begin Monday. The decision was made, De León said, because a blackout was not adopted by the Assembly or applied universally to all candidates, putting Senate incumbents at a disadvantage.

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Republican state Sen. Jim Nielsen of Gerber was one of those who opposed dropping the rule, which also bans fundraising by senators during the last month of the legislative session. Nielsen said it does not look good to the public for lawmakers to shelve the rule right before it takes effect.

“The timing is certainly not the best right now,” Nielsen said. “We have a rule in place. Is it working? Probably not. But I feel the timing was inappropriate. Why now?”

The rule suspension disappointed Gavin Baker, open government program manager for California Common Cause.

“Legislators should be able to fully focus on governing during these key times,” he said Thursday.

He agreed that it was unfair for one house to operate under restrictions while the other one does not.

“But the best way to strengthen Californians’ confidence in our elected officials is for the Assembly to follow suit in adopting the Senate’s fundraising ban — not for the Senate to follow the Assembly in a race to the bottom,” Baker said.

Last year, Assembly members held 42 campaign fundraisers in the four weeks before the budget was approved. Some of the fundraisers were held by lawmakers who were then considering possible runs for state Senate, including Democrat Toni Atkins of San Diego.

Senate leaders are particularly concerned this year that the reelection campaign of Sen. Jim Beall (D-San Jose) is lagging behind in the money contest in a competitive race with Assemblywoman Nora Campos (D-San Jose).

Beall’s campaign has directly raised about $596,000, compared with $323,000 by Campos, but a campaign committee backed by oil companies Chevron, Tesoro and Valero has independently spent $340,000 in favor of Campos.

De León said democracy requires fair elections.

“But in the current election environment with unprecedented millions of dollars pouring into our political system and threatening to drown out the candidates themselves on both sides of the aisle — Democrats as well as Republicans — we cannot in good conscience or as a matter of good policy force our members to unilaterally disarm, play by a different set of rules and cease to defend themselves,” De León told his colleagues.

“If we do we aren’t standing up for democracy,” he added. “We are giving an unfair advantage to the powerful and very wealthy special interests who are attempting to gain their results.”

Beall was the lone Democrat to vote against suspending the rule, seeing it as a “conflict of interest” to vote on a rule change that would benefit him, said his campaign spokesman, Michael Terris.

De León’s push to help Beall defeat Campos comes after previous friction between the senator and assemblywoman.

In 2014, De León backed his former girlfriend, Magdalena Carrasco, with whom he has a daughter, as she unseated San Jose City Councilman Xavier Campos.

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FOR THE RECORD
May 12, 3:55 p.m.: An earlier version of this article said that state Sen. Jim Beall backed Magdalena Carrasco in her run for San Jose City Council in 2014. Beall’s representative said he did not endorse her.
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The former councilman, who is Nora Campos’ brother, had beaten Carrasco in a bitter contest for the same council seat in the previous election.

The blackout rule was adopted in 2014, when now former Democratic Sens. Ronald Calderon and Leland Yee were indicted on charges of taking payments for official actions as part of separate FBI sting operations, and Sen. Roderick Wright was convicted of voting fraud for lying about living in his Senate district.

At the time, De León said the blackout periods “will ensure that elected officials are focused exclusively on the people’s business at the busiest times of the legislative year.”

De León added then that the rules were “preserving the ability for members to wage effective campaigns by raising the necessary money at more appropriate times of the year.”

patrick.mcgreevy@latimes.com

Twitter: @mcgreevy99

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