Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Legislature Moves To Gut Local Campaign Limits

One thing I learned a long time ago as a political writer for the L.A. Times was that there was very little, if any, substantive difference between the integrity of Democrats and Republicans in the Legislature in Sacramento. The preponderant majority of both parties in the State Assembly and State Senate is frequently inclined to be corrupt, beholden to lobbyists, sellouts to campaign contributors, devoted to subterfuge when it should be serving the public.

I knew honest legislators in Sacramento, such as Tony Beilenson, Alan Sieroty and Gordon Winton. But they were in what was for the most part a powerless minority. Some legislators, like Assembly Speaker Jesse Unruh, knew how to maneuver through the corruption for good ends. But the Legislature is customarily dominated by such lobbies as insurance and trial lawyers, and their contributions usually call the shots. At one time, the insurers, for example, were giving to all but four of the 120 legislators. Some times, the lobbies don't get their way, especially when they conflict with other lobbies. But at least they are able to block anything from happening that is truly detrimental to their interests.

That all comes back to mind today when I read the blog by Bill Boyarsky on LA Observed. Boyarsky, a long time Associated Press reporter and political writer for Associated Press in Sacramento, before he became a political writer and editor for the Times. Now retired, he is a member of Los Angeles city ethics commission.

Boyarsky writes today how, as quietly as possible, the Legislature is working to gut local campaign laws in the state, such as in Los Angeles, where there are severe limits on how much can be given to City Council and other campaigns.

A bill by Martin Garrick, a Republican Assemblyman, that would do away with most of these limits and allow a flood of unrestricted money into local campaigns has already cleared the Assembly on a 77-0 vote and is now pending in the State Senate. If it goes to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, as seems likely, it will probably be signed by the governor, who has become beholden too to the big contributors, despite promising not to in the Recall campaign.

77-0! That's about right. Of the Assembly's 80 members, 77 were willing to vote against the public interest in this case, and the three others were probably just absent. This is the Legislature I got to know, and it hasn't changed since the days of Artie Samish. Boyarsky in his blog accurately calls the Garrick bill "a real stinker." Actually, it would not only end restrictions on giving to candidates, but it would keep the contributions from being disclosed before the election, so the voters would have no way of knowing where a candidate's support came from before voting.

It is an open secret in state government that both parties have made reapportionment deals which guarantee that Republicans as well as Democrats will almost always be in safe districts. Only rarely is there an upset at the polls. This situation helped lead to term limits, but term limits simply bring new, inexperienced legislators to Sacramento, either willing to be fleeced, or too naive not to be.

At least, years ago, the Sacramento press corps was devotedly at the heels of the worst scoundrels and could be counted on to give massive publicity to such schemes as the gutting of local campaign laws, which sometimes was tantamount to killing them at the last moment. The crooks in the Legislature can't stand the light of day, and often will slink back into the darkness when what they are doing is exposed.

But the Sacramento press corps today is somewhat tamer than it was. There are still good correspondents in Sacramento, but often their newspapers are not behind them. The Sacramento Bee, for example, used to be absolutely devoted to the public interest under Eleanor and C.K. McClatchy. It is not the same paper any more.

To be fair, the L.A. Times did editorialize against the Garrick bill today, pointing everything out in a more restrained way than Boyarsky and I have.

What does all this mean? It means that, more than ever, big money interests are taking over the state, and now will have even more sway in local government. It means that even local zoning and development decisions are going to be cooked.

When I was covering insurance and the law for the Times I became familiar with many of the sleazy tricks used by the special interests, and by the legislators who were some of the biggest crooks.

When Alan Robbins was chairman of the Senate Insurance Committee, in the days before term limits, I once told him that in light of the fact that it seemed the San Fernando Valley would elect him to the Senate for life, and also given that he had made millions of dollars in real estate, I felt he could afford to "go straight."

"I'm considering it," Robbins replied. But he was not considering it seriously enough, because six months later, he was the subject of a federal indictment for taking bribes. He was convicted, went to prison, and is now out of public life.

In Robbins' case, I followed his career closely and was often able to catch up with his chicanery. Others, I found smarter and wilier

Often, I like politicians. But they need tireless watching, as Boyarsky is trying to do in this case.

--

I'm sorry to see Mark Arax leave the Times, one of many able reporters recently to do so. Arax reacted bitterly, and I think mistakenly, when an article he wrote about the Armenian genocide was killed. But over the years, Mark gave much to the paper. His early stories about the Chinese community in the San Gabriel Valley were just one example of his distinguished reporting.

I wasn't always in agreement with Arax. There was sometimes a hard class edge to his reporting, and one time, he wrote a story suggesting that Frank Damrell, a roommate of Jerry Brown's, both in Seminary and at Berkeley, not be confirmed by the U.S. Senate as a federal district court judge in Sacramento, because he was married to a daughter of the Gallo family. I thought this was ridiculous and told him so. But I assured Damrell that the story would only smooth his way to confirmation for the judgeship, which it did.

By and large though, Arax is a great reporter, if somewhat hotheaded on occasion. I'm sure he will do well in the future.

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