Ron Kaye: Political money is wreaking havoc

“Money is the mother’s milk of politics.” — Jesse “Big Daddy” Unruh, California Assembly Speaker, 1966.

With staggering sums from special interests pouring into campaigns for office at all levels, it’s become perfectly clear that political money is toxic, corrupting our democratic institutions instead of nourishing them.

What we see in the disconnect from our lives in the nonsense in Washington and Sacramento is repeated at the local level all too often.

The corrosive effect of money from big business and big unions has produced a political machine in Los Angeles that makes it almost impossible for ordinary citizens to compete for elective office, for the will of the people to be heard except in extraordinary circumstances.

Even Glendale has seen the corrupting influence of big money with revelations that people connected with the scandal-plagued affordable housing developer Advanced Development & Investment Inc. contributed more than $100,000 to city election candidates.

The result is alienation of voters reflected in low turnout on election days and the loss of faith in our government institutions — problems that have been compounded by Supreme Court decisions that treat spending vast amounts of money by individuals, corporations or organizations to influence election results as simply a 1st Amendment right to free speech.

The irony of “free” speech and billion-dollar campaigns for president and $150-million campaigns for governor seems to be lost on the court.

It has not been lost on Glendale Councilman Ara Najarian, who has been pushing for campaign finance reform for several years and has rounded up support for a major overhaul of the city’s laws on raising political money and ethics. It comes to the full council on Tuesday.

“The point is just to level the playing field and to give all the candidates the ability to get their message out in proportion to the real community support they have and not let someone with a few big donors blow everyone out of the water,” he said.

The proposed ordinance makes major changes in an effort to make elections fairer, reduce the likelihood of corruption and allow council members to establish officeholder accounts with up to $10,000 to pay for various costs directly associated with the service in office.

Drafted by retiring City Atty. Scott Howard, it would bar incumbents from raising money in off-years and limit how much they can carry over from one campaign to the next to $10,000. At the same time, it lifts the $5,000 cap on how much a candidate can loan his or her campaign to bring city law in line with court rulings.

It would set up a database of contractors, subcontractors for tracking the connection between interests and contributions and make it a misdemeanor for council members to vote on contracts worth $25,000 or more if they took contributions from anyone connected to the contractor for one year before or after the vote.

“This is another stop in trying to tackle the issues that grew out of the ADI problem,” Howard said. “We know we can’t ever reach perfection, but this will go a long way to capturing all of the contributions from contractors, subcontractors and everyone else and make them as transparent as possible.”

The proposal stops short of embracing the growing trend toward “clean money” public funding of candidates as recommended last week in a comprehensive study by the Santa Monica-based Center for Governmental Studies, or using available computer capacity for reporting of contributions in virtually real-time.

Still, it moves Glendale forward toward fairer elections and greater protections against corruption in city business.

“As much as we try to capture everyone, we may fall short,” Howard acknowledged. “If someone wants to violate the law, they are going to violate the law.”

Najarian added: “People who want to skirt the law can always do it.”

RON KAYE can be reached at Share your thoughts and stories with him.

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