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A viewpoint by Thomas D. Elias: Supreme Court puts campaign reform in lap of legislators

July 24, 2001

The U.S. Supreme Court acted in a Colorado case when it decreed a few days ago that legislators can limit spending by political parties, but the landmark ruling should have more importance to California than Colorado or anyplace else.

After state legislators and Gov. Gray Davis secretly crafted last year's Proposition 34 and hustled it onto the November ballot, political parties quickly emerged as the key electoral kingmakers in this state.

The two major party chairmen are not and never will be elected by the public, but they are now among California's four or five most powerful political figures. Their clout will increase even more if and when their pet ballot measure takes full effect after the next election. Proposition 34 passed handily because it was fobbed off on the voters as a significant campaign reform. It will put tight limits on what anyone can give to state officeholders or candidates but will leave wide open the amounts donors can pass along to the parties and what parties can spend on behalf of their favored candidates.

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While they pushed Proposition 34, Davis and legislative leaders of both parties said they couldn't do more because it's unconstitutional to limit spending by the parties. Not so, says the SupremeCourt.

Parties today are not just debating societies or groups of like-minded citizens, wrote Justice David Souter, speaking for the majority in the 5-4 decision. Perhaps this spring's events in California helped persuade him, for he said parties often function as "matchmakers," bringing together candidates and donors. The parties can be "used as a funnel," Souter added, steering money from contributors to their designated candidates. In short, the court held, giving money to parties rather than candidates can often be little more than a subterfuge, with the money ending up behind chosen candidates just as it always has.

Proposition 34 encourages the parties to do even more than what Souter outlined. Besides allowing them to back their people in partisan races, it allows them to spend unlimited "soft money" in races that are supposed to be nonpartisan.

How important can that be? In the Los Angeles mayoral race, where Democrats James Hahn and Antonio Villaraigosa met in an early June runoff, soft money spending topped $2.5 million, a record. Much of that was spent by the state Democratic Party, which backed loser Villaraigosa with hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of "member communications" — calls from phone banks, direct mail and precinct walks. In nonpartisan races, Proposition 34 does limit party spending to messages to their own members. But where one party dominates the electorate, as Democrats do in Los Angeles, the anointed party choice can have a huge advantage. Party money was a big reason Villaraigosa made the runoff.

Democrats are not alone in using soft money to back their party choices.

Example: The state Republican Party spent $20,000 last spring on mailers backing unsuccessful San Diego City Council candidate Steve Danon. This means the end of a 100-year era in which political parties were assiduously kept out of nonpartisan races and partisan primaries. Unless state lawmakers act. And if they don't, Californians will likely find out why it was necessary to limit the role of the parties after the corrupt era at the close of the 19th century.

Legislators said last year they couldn't rein in either donations to or spending by political parties because such restrictions would violate the parties' right to free speech. Now the Supreme Court says otherwise.

So the entire issue of campaign finance restrictions can be back before the Legislature, even before Proposition 34 takes full effect late next year.

So far this year, though, no action. Campaign reform has been a low-priority item in the state Capitol. Three active state Senate bills attempt to mandate "truth in telephoning," more information on initiative petitions and penalties for campaigns that use deceptive website names.

There's nothing in the hopper this year about donations and spending. Yet the demonstrated flaws in Proposition 34 cry out for fixing, and now the Supreme Court has removed any excuses for inaction.

Davis and the lawmakers still have time to act this year. If they don't, they'll be demonstrating that they're happy with the present system, complete with its real and potential harm to fair and honest elections. But don't hold your breath waiting for action, for these are the same people who designed Proposition 34 in secret for their own benefit.

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