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A viewpoint by Thomas D. Elias: L.A. vote shows lots more plitical reform needed

July 10, 2001

Just in case anyone thought last year's passage of Proposition 34 accomplished all the political reform California might need for the foreseeable future, one look at the just-concluded springtime campaign for mayor of Los Angeles ought to squelch that notion.

Yes, Proposition 34 will soon take most campaign money out of the hands of state legislators and give it to political parties, starting after next year's elections. There will be no more passing of money from lawmaker to lawmaker with dollars functioning as de facto kingmakers.

There also will be limits on what individuals can give candidates, for the first time in California history. Meanwhile, the sky's the limit on donations to political parties.

The L.A. elections provide a neat microcosm for what these rules might portend, and also for what they don't cover.

There was, for example, no protection for primary candidate Steve Soboroff when lying calls from a phone bank began "asking" for contributions to his campaign and his non-existent "conservative coalition." The brief messages concluded by saying "Soboroff's polling numbers have been falling and we have become entirely dependent upon Jewish money. Thank you and thank you from Steve Soboroff." Soboroff's camp did not make the calls.

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Soboroff, long the right-hand man to outgoing Mayor Richard Riordan, is in fact a Jew. But he had no "conservative coalition," instead running a centrist campaign. And the bulk of any Jewish money going to his campaign came from his own pocket. His largest financial backer was Riordan, a devout Roman Catholic. Rather than an appeal to support Soboroff, this was an attempt to rouse latent anti-Semitism against him.

It may have worked. For Soboroff was climbing in every poll before the phone calls started. Then he leveled off. As it was, he got just 4 percent fewer votes than he'd have needed to make the runoff. There's no way to tell whether the bogus calls drove away that many voters.

Meanwhile, no one knows who financed this scurrilous phone bank, and no one will until midsummer. Under state rules untouched by Proposition 34, operators of such campaigns have four months to reveal their financial backers.

Earlier, Soboroff had been the beneficiary of some of the practices Proposition 34 will make quite common. Even though the mayoral contest was nominally non-partisan, he was the only Republican among six major candidates. The state GOP put tens of thousands of dollars into an effort to place him in the runoff, providing mailings and television commercials. That helped bring him from fifth in the early polls to a close third in the primary.

Democratic Party officials, meanwhile,were doing the same for their anointed candidate, Antonio Villaraigosa, who would eventually lose in last month's runoff to another Democrat, James Hahn.The party's massive support, over four other Democrats and a veteran independent city councilman, propelled Villaraigosa from barely 12 percent in early polls to a 30 percent vote in the primary and his spot in the runoff.

If party money — not previously the focus of political giving — can accomplish so much today, it's not hard to imagine how important it will become when Proposition 34 takes full force in 2003.

There's no appetite in Sacramento to change this. The politicians now running the state wrote 34 for their own benefit and for the most part, they're happy with it. But there is a move to remove the anonymity from false, racist and misleading phone campaigns like the one used against Soboroff.

One corrective bill comes from Republican state Sen. Jim Brulte of Rancho Cucamonga. He would require all phone banks making more than 1,000 calls in any one campaign to disclose which candidate, committee or individual financed them.

"The loophole now allows people to hide in the shadows and launch horribly negative campaigns, but never have to take responsibility for them," Brulte said.

He's right, and the Los Angeles race demonstrates his corrective bill deserves passage. But that same election also shows there's a plain need for additional curbs on the influence about to be wielded by unelected political party chairmen who will soon move into the ranks of California's most powerful politicians.

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