Politics, government and public life for Southern California

Nearly all big campaign donations come from tiny fraction of population

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Karen Bleier/AFP/Getty Images

Rep. Joe Baca, D-CA, is running for re-election against a fellow Democrat, California State Senator Gloria Negrete McLeod.

There’s been a lot of talk about political action committees and the jaw-dropping amounts they’re spending on campaigns.  If you sift through candidates’ filings with the Federal Election Commission, you'll discover that just a tiny fraction of contributions come from friends and neighbors within Congressional districts.

Because of California’s new election rules, two Democrats are running against each other in Corona.  Incumbent Congressman Joe Baca is being challenged by State Senator Gloria Negrete McLeod. The campaigns combined have raised just over a million dollars.

It’s not a huge amount of money, compared to other contests. But the donor base reflects a common pattern in Congressional races.

For Baca, 60 percent of his money comes from political action committees — mostly farming, telecom, and labor groups.  McLeod gets less than 20 percent of her money from PACs, mostly from Emily’s List and other organizations that support women candidates.

But buried in that pot of money for both candidates are thousands of dollars from lobbyists and consultants — donations described as “individual contributions.”

Sheila Krumholz is executive director of the non-partisan Center for Responsive Politics. She says lobbyists have "long played the money-in-politics game." She calls it a cost of doing business.

Changes in federal law have made it more difficult for lobbyists to pick up the tab for a meal, but it does not restrict their ability to give money to a candidate's campaign.  Krumholz says many lawyers should be lumped into this category — particularly those with a D.C. address, since they serve as de facto lobbyists. 

Krumholz calls them "Washington animals." She says they know how to work the system, how to navigate the halls of Congress, "and they know the power of personal connection, how to use their contacts."

One way to build up that rolodex is to work both sides of the aisle. Lobbyist David Turch, for example, wrote a check to Joe Baca for $1,000.  But he’s also given to GOP Congressional candidate John Tavaglione in Riverside.  Over the years, Turch has contributed to Californians from both parties: Democrats Dianne Feinstein, Lucille Roybal-Allard, and Janice Hahn; as well as Republicans David Dreier, Darrell Issa, and Elton Gallegly.

Baca’s opponent, McLeod, has lobbyist money as well. All four partners of the Sacramento firm Lang, Hansen, O’Malley, and Miller each kicked in $2,000 to her campaign. The firm represents clients as varied as Facebook, Walmart, Hollywood Park, and the City of San Clemente.

Melanie Sloan of the D.C.-based watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics says when lobbyists contribute, it’s not exactly quid pro quo.  It’s about building a relationship and access. Wanting to give back, she says, is human nature: "You’re likely to help people who’ve helped you."

Sloan says if a lobbyist has helped retain your seat and bundled lots of contributions, "you as a member of Congress, because you’re a human being, are just going to feel grateful and more likely to at least give that person a hearing."

Baca and McLeod each raised more than $15,000 from lobbyists and consultants — but from two different cities.  Most of Baca’s come from Washington, where he’s served in Congress since 1999. Most of McLeod’s are from Sacramento, where she’s been in the state legislature since 2000.

Meredith McGehee, policy director of the Campaign Legal Center, a non-profit that enforces campaign finance laws, says the shocking thing isn't that lobbyists and consultants give, "It’s that if you really look at the number of people generally who give $200 or more in federal elections, it’s .26% — far less than even one percent of the population."

Meaning most large campaign contributions come from a small pool of givers. And now, McGehee says, the Citizens United decision has made it possible for special interests to do more than just make a $2,500 individual contribution to a candidate: they can give an unlimited amount to a political action committee. 

Joe Baca's FEC information can be found here:

Gloria Negrete McLeod's FEC information can be found here:



INFOGRAPHIC: Many SoCal state legislators register their votes after the fact

Southern California Assembly membes add/change votes

Chart: Sharon McNary/KPCC Data: Associated Press

Here are the State Assembly members from Southern California who recorded the most and least add-in and changed votes in the past year, according to an Associated Press analysis. Asterisks denote members who are running for re-election.

State Assembly members altered their votes on legislation more than 5,000 times in the past year, according to a new analysis published Wednesday by The Associated Press.

Assembly rules let members add their vote to a bill if they were absent for the actual floor vote or chose to abstain. It also allows them to change a vote cast during the formal voting period. Members must make the change on the same day of the floor vote, and their after-the-fact vote cannot change the outcome of the original vote.

Critics say the practice allows lawmakers to mislead their constituents by changing the official record of how they acted on specific pieces of legislation.

Southern California members were among the most prolific vote-amenders, led by Assemblyman Tony Mendoza. The Norwalk Democrat said that adding a vote after initially abstaining — which he did more than 200 times in the past session — is quite different from changing a vote that has already been cast.


That's My Issue: Education policy

Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

Striking Chicago public school teachers picket outside of George Westinghouse College Prep high school on September 17, 2012 in Chicago, Illinois. More than 26,000 teachers and support staff walked off of their jobs on September 10 after the Chicago Teachers Union failed to reach an agreement with the city on compensation, benefits and job security. With about 350,000 students, the Chicago school district is the third largest in the United States.

This post is part of KPCC & WNYC's "That's My Issue" series, and represents the views of its author, not of either station. 

For me, it’s a personal thing. I’m pursuing education policy — that’s where I’m going. So for me, [education] is the big pressing issue of the time.

You see [that] with the Chicago teacher strike that happened not too long ago, and just what’s been going on... with the issues that are affecting teacher’s unions and all of that and with the whole idea of accountability and how we are going about with teacher’s salaries.

I think that right now is a very key moment for us to reconsider the way that we look at education and the way that we approach reform.

Honestly, I want to see clear policy spelled out, particularly on Romney’s side. I feel like Obama, since he was our president, it’s all on the table, we know where he is headed, we know what he stood for.  He stood pretty firmly and lost a lot of support from the teachers' unions. I think with Romney, I’m still unclear about how he wants to move forward.


Battle of political ads amps up in Palm Springs Congressional race

What's a campaign to do when the race is getting tight and you've got money to spend in a California media market that's somewhat affordable? Start running lots of negative ads.

Two new spots have just hit the airwaves in the Coachella Valley Congressional race between Republican incumbent Mary Bono Mack and her Democratic challenger, Dr. Raul Ruiz.

The House Majority PAC, a Democratic political action committee, is running a week's worth of TV ads in the Palm Springs market, aimed at Mack. She's married to a fellow member of Congress from Florida (and U.S. Senate candidate), Connie Mack. The ad accuses her of forgetting about the Coachella Valley and taking advantage of a tax exemption for Florida residents.

On the tax exemption charge, the Bono Mack campaign points to an article in the Tampa Bay Times' fact-checking operation, PolitiFact. The charge stems from the unusual marital geography of Bono Mack and her husband. Both own homes in their own states. Both claim homestead exemptions, which translate into a tax break. You're only allowed one per household, but since both file taxes separately and hold title to their respective residences in their own name, the local Florida county appraiser's office gave his blessing to the exemption.


CA Fair Political Practices Commission wants names of $11 million donors to Prop 30 and 32

Rich Pedroncelli/AP

California Gov. Jerry Brown, speaking in Sacramento in August, advocates a November ballot initiative that would increase sales and income taxes. An Arizona group has contributed $11 million to defeat Prop. 30 and a state commission wants the names of the donors disclosed.

California officials are expected to investigate an $11 million campaign contribution from an Arizona nonprofit. The money was donated to defeat Proposition 30 and pass Proposition 32. 

The Fair Political Practices Commission is demanding the group disclose who gave the money by Wednesday.

Americans for Responsible Leadership is described on its website as an organization that seeks to “advance government accountability, transparency, ethics, and related public policy issues.”   

The group donated $11 million to the Small Business Action Committee, which is working to defeat Prop. 30 and to pass Prop. 32, the proposed ban on payroll deductions for political donations.

The Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) sent a letter to the group’s attorneys demanding the donor’s names.  

FPPC Chair Ann Ravel said if the group does not respond by Wednesday, the FPPC will sue Americans for Responsible Leadership.