California Republicans as the Party of the Poor

California Republicans as the Party of the Poor by Ron Unz
Sacramento Bee, Sunday, August 22, 1999

The recent release of campaign finance reports for the first half of 1999 has revealed a surprising fact: unlike its national counterpart, the California Republican Party has suddenly become the party of the poor.

Early press accounts mostly emphasized the astonishing pace of Democratic Gov. Gray Davis’s post-election fund-raising, in which he racked up nearly $6.4 million in contributions—over five times the previous record for this period—beginning just weeks after entering office and almost four years before his next general election. Longtime Sacramento observers found Davis’s fund-raising zeal surprising only in degree rather than kind, given his general reputation as a politician whose only ideology is raising money and running for office.

But other prominent Democrats also demonstrated extraordinary levels of early fundraising. Attorney General Bill Lockyer and Treasurer Phil Angelides raised over $500,000 and $700,000 respectively, Senate President Pro-Tem John Burton raised over $2 million, and Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa brought in almost $1.4 million.

These totals completely dwarf the dollars gathered by state Republicans during this same period. For example, the combined fundraising of all the top Senate and Assembly Republicans—Ross Johnson, Jim Brulte, Scott Baugh, and Rod Pacheco—was substantially less than that of Villaraigosa alone. California’s statewide Democratic officeholders outraised their Republican counter-parts by more than a factor of twenty.

The imbalance between Democratic and Republican bank accounts is even more extreme. Secretary of State Bill Jones and Insurance Commissioner Chuck Quackenbush have just $30,000 in their combined warchests, with debts of over $200,000, while California’s top two statewide Democrats—Davis and Lockyer—have almost $10 million, with negligible debt.

Villaraigosa has over $2.5 million in cash net of debt, while his Republican Assembly leader Scott Baugh has just $230,000 in cash and an even larger outstanding debt.

The reason for Democratic wealth and Republican poverty is clear. In California’s political system, money flows to power, and the Democrats have that in abundance. The huge potential impact which state spending and state regulation can have on the bottom lines of business special interests mean that every such competing corporate group—health insurance companies and trial lawyers, Indian casinos and rival non-Indian card-clubs—believes it must “pay to play.”

Since the Democrats control the executive branch and have huge majorities in the legislature, they represent the “house” in these games, taking heavy contributions from both sides of these special interest battles. Without significant power or the prospect of soon acquiring some, California Republicans have a difficult time shaking the corporate money tree. As reporters have noted, much of the Democratic funding has come from traditionally Republican-leaning corporations and business interests.

Obviously this situation presents serious problems to Republican political hopes, since as former Assembly Speaker Jesse Unruh once observed “money is the mother’s milk of politics.” But the flip side of every danger is an opportunity.

Americans of all ideologies—left, right, and center—are increasingly disturbed at the notion that their government is for sale to the highest bidder, and calls for reform of the system are gaining widespread support. Since California Republicans have less to sell, they have greater freedom to support ending this corrupt auction process.

An opportunity may be approaching. As a Republican, I and my co-proponent Tony Miller, a reform Democrat and former Secretary of State, have drafted the “Voters Rights 2000″ initiative, a sweeping and comprehensive political and campaign reform measure aimed at the March 2000 ballot. Besides requiring immediate 24-hour Internet disclosure of all campaign contributions of $1000 or more and all television, radio, or mail advertising and other reform, the measure also helps to level the playing field between candidates by providing for voluntary spending limits, and limited state matching funds and bulk mailings for candidates who agree to spending limits. These long overdue proposals are widely popular among rank-and-file Republicans, Democrats, and Independents, and are core issues among third-party voters from the Reform and Green Parties.

Traditionally, Democratic leaders have paid lip service to campaign finance reform, while Republicans have rejected it, partly on ideological grounds. But with the Clinton-Gore fund-raising scandals demonstrating the dangers of the current system, and with California Democrats from Gray Davis on down vacuuming up nearly all the special interest money, Republicans should begin reconsidering their position.

Besides winning support from the media, the reform community, and independent voters, Republicans who support campaign reform would be able to call the bluff of the Democratic Party leadership, whose support for reform probably vanished the day they gained complete control of the levers of power. Our initiative would force California’s Democratic establishment to choose between their money and their alleged principles, always an uncomfortable choice for a politician.

Although money is an important factor in political success, it is not always decisive. Gov. Jesse “the Body” Ventura was outspent some 20 to 1 by his Democratic and Republican gubernatorial opponents in Minnesota, but triumphed nonetheless.

During 1994, the Congressional Democrats enjoyed a massive spending advantage over the Republicans, but lost control of the both the House and the Senate in an unprecedented Republican sweep. In 1998, Proposition 227, the “English for the Children” initiative, was outspent by about 25 to 1 in advertising, but still won a 22 point landslide. Al Checchi’s $40 million bought him just a 12% slice of the primary vote.

In recent years, many California Republicans have fallen into the trap of emphasizing money over message. Since the money now seems to have dried up, perhaps the party will consider returning to the message-oriented campaigns which worked so well for Ronald Reagan and other past leaders during its period of success. If campaign reform becomes an important part of that message, all Californians will benefit.

Ron Unz, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, is an author of the proposed “Voters Rights 2000″ campaign reform initiative.

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