A Modest Proposal Ridding Us of So-Called Independent Expenditures

Special Note: Don’t forget to check out the Direct Mail Disinfo Rehab Archive with mail from the 2006 primary election, recently featured at SF’s Usual Suspects website!
Whenever you pass a political money reform bill, the road to Hell gets a new paving of unintended consequences. Take Proposition 34, which was supposedly going to limit “big money” in elections for state office.
We passed “limits” which were designed to keep “big money” out of elections, and it did have the effect of limiting large unlimited contributions, which are apparently evil in and of themselves, out of campaigns by candidates for office. One problem: no one found a legal, Constitutional way to limit efforts “independent” of candidates by those “big money” folks to speak loudly, carry big sticks, and have an incredible amount of influence in an election.
We’ve gone through 3 cycles under the new regime, and as both a manager and observer of Assembly races, I have to say that the influence of outside groups has increased ten-fold, as backers of previous reforms had hoped. Now, when a candidate runs for office, he or she has to pray to the God of their choice that assorted interest groups not only support them, but will spend untold bucks on their behalf, and pray that they’ll do something that’s helpful to their campaigns.
In 2002, we saw trial lawyers, eager to take a posthumous hit at then Assemblyman Lou Papan, spend uncounted millions on behalf of Gene Mullin, to “punish” the daughter of Lou Papan for not toeing the line enough in his time in office. While Gene Mullin’s campaign claimed it was “all them” when they won, the fact was if it was not for untold spending by outside groups, we may or may not have had a different result.
Likewise, in 2006, we have the political gang war that is the 12th Assembly district primary. No less than 11 allied “independent expenditure” committees (who oddly enough seem to have the same candid photos in their ads as the candidate does) are picking on Janet Reilly, for reasons obvious and not so obvious. For all the “experience” people talk about, it seems strange that the only thing people helping a candidate can do is to pump out mail that is more about hype than substance.
There is, however, a simple cure for this disease, one that does not require demolishing the First Amendment, passage of new Road to Hell legislation, or even taxpayer funding of politician’s races. It relies solely on common sense, and a candidate’s values.

All a candidate for state office needs to do is to read the publicly available records on independent expenditures available at the California Secretary of State’s office and then compose a letter similar to the one below:

Dear [Insert Name of Fat Cats and IEs Here]
My name is [State Your Name] and I am running for [dogcatcher/assembly/state senate/whatever] in California. Although state law forbids me from having any say in any potential “independent expenditures” and even whether I want you to do so or not, it does not forbid me from reading public reports coming out during and after the election.
As such, I will be reviewing the public spending reports of any and all “independent expenditure” committees during the election, and afterwards. I will note who has donated to said efforts, and I will note how much was spent on such efforts, and I will note which consultants worked on said efforts.
When all such efforts are reviewed, I will be sending a letter to any and all involved telling them that while their work on my behalf may or may not be appreciated, that said, those involved with said “independent expenditures” will not be allowed to speak with me, or my staff, or any committee I am affiliated with, while I serve in office.
As such, you are free to continue whatever you feel is necessary to aid or abet me or my opposition. However, you will not be able to speak with my or my staff if I am elected to office.
[State Your Name]

Yeah, I know, pie in the sky dreaming. But think about it. Such a letter at the end of a campaign would allow a candidate to have it both ways. ONCE. With the threat of these kinds of missives though, I wonder how many well heeled folks would be eager to fund such campaigns in the future?
More importantly, what would happen if the public demanded their candidates for office to subscribe to such a code of conduct, voluntarily?
Perhaps then the dreams of reformers might be realized, and the Road to Hell Paving Crew might get a break for once. Peace and Justice would reign and a Golden Age of Politics would govern us better than any Utopian novelist’s dreams.
Ok maybe not. But can you imagine what things might have been like in So Called Liberal San Francisco if public pressure had brought this to bear? Maybe then our 12th AD candidates would have debated issues, instead of traded posturing.
Dare to dream.

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