A viewpoint by Thomas D. Elias: About to get the ultimate clout

January 23, 2001

Then delegates to the state conventions of the Republican and Democratic parties meet later this winter, they'll be electing two of the five most powerful officials in the state — their chairmen.

How can that be, in California, where strong and centralized political parties have been anathema since the era of Hiram Johnson and the Progressives in the early years of the last century? Answer: last fall's Proposition 34.

Because its ballot title included the words "Campaign contribution limits, disclosure," this proposition passed easily, getting 60 percent of the vote even though the national leader of the campaign finance reform movement, Arizona Sen. John McCain, went on television to oppose it.

Politicians like Gov. Gray Davis and Assembly Speaker Bob Hertzberg, who rushed the measure through the Legislature last summer without public hearings, called it reform, saying it was "the best we can do." Reform, reschmorn.


This law is campaign reform the way that Mike Tyson is a model citizen, and now its consequences will begin to play out.

Few have paid much attention for decades when Republicans and Democrats named party chairs at their biannual state conventions. These have been largely social gatherings for party activists. The real power belonged to elected officials.

No more. Under terms of Proposition 34, the two party chairs are about to obtain de facto power about equal to that of the Assembly speaker or the Senate president. No, they won't be able to sign and veto bills like the governor. No, they won't be able to write new laws or vote on proposed ones.

But they will be able to instruct the folks who do these things.

Proposition 34 sets strict limits on campaign contributions to individual candidates, starting after 2002. Legislative candidates will be able to take no more than $3,000 per donor per election. Most statewide candidates can take $5,000 per donor and folks running for governor can accept contributions up to $20,000.

Until now there have been no limits. While they seem generous, the new donation caps would greatly reduce current campaign spending if they were all there was to 34. But they're not. Political parties can accept unlimited contributions and parties can spend as much as they like backing their candidates.

Essentially, this means the party chairs will control the big bucks of California politics. Play ball with them, follow the party agenda and you can expect big financial support. Defy them and vote against the party line at your peril.

For anyone who values independence in politicians, this setup is a nightmare. It figures to worsen the lockstep party-line voting that has become standard in Sacramento since term limits became law and political advancement became essentially a function of voting the way party leaders instructed.

Besides that, the new law is nothing more than a shell game. Instead of today's system, which makes the leader of each major party in the Legislature a gatekeeper parceling out political cash to candidates, the new system gives that role to party chairs.

"There's no doubt it will increase the importance of the leadership," says Brooks Firestone, a former Republican assemblyman from Santa Barbara County who has fought for moderates to have a bigger role in the GOP.

He's right. Two persons not elected to public office will now control the purse strings so essential for anyone else to get elected. True, their control doesn't begin until two years from now. But who's going to defy them now, knowing the long memories of the ideologues who become party leaders?

What's more, the new law institutionalizes the "soft money" that was rightly vilified all last year by politicians from John McCain and Bill Bradley to Al Gore and George W. Bush. It makes almost all candidates completely dependent on money from the parties, not donors in their own districts.

This plan does even more than the elimination of the blanket primary to keep California politics in the grip of extremists in both parties. It is the extremists who are most active in party politics, with extreme liberals running the Democrats' party apparatus for the last 30 years, while extreme conservatives took over the GOP in the mid-1960s and have controlled it since. Now their anointed ones will control most political money and woe to moderates who represent the majority of all voters.

Why did legislators overwhelmingly pass this measure, with the Senate going for it by a bipartisan 32-2 margin? Because they feared the tight contribution limits of the 1996 Proposition 208 might be reinstated by federal courts, in the wake of a U.S. Supreme Court decision that last year upheld a Missouri law similar to 208. That initiative, with contribution limits of $500 per election cycle for legislative candidates and $1,000 in statewide races, was nullified when 34 passed.

In short, this law reached the ballot for the wrong reasons and will create a wrongful political climate with far too much power in unelected hands. It bequeaths California an inevitably corrupt system that can be changed only by another ballot initiative.

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