Asymmetrical warfare rules in initiative campaigns

Late last week, the Texas-based oil company Tesoro donated another $100,000 to an initiative that would suspend AB 32, California’s 2006 global warming emissions law until the state’s unemployment situation improved. In response, Steve Maviglio, a spokesman for Californians for Clean Energy and Jobs, the main group opposing The California Jobs Initiative, took to the Internet.

“More dirty energy money continues to flow into the campaign by Texas oil interests to buy their way onto the California ballot,” Maviglio wrote on the California Majority Report, a blog to which he is the main contributor.

“It’s unfortunate that in politics, if you can’t win on the actual case, you attack the messenger,” shot back Anita Mengel, a spokeswoman for the Jobs Initiative. “That’s what is happening here.”

Still, there’s a formidable set of pocketbooks behind the effort. The Jobs Initiative has taken in $1.8 million so far. Tesoro has put in a total of $275,000, while another Texas oil company, Valero, has donated $508,000. Mengel said the campaign boasts a long list of coalition members, including several grassroots taxpayer groups.  

Maviglio said he’d love to be saturating the airwaves with that message, but his group has raised only $665,000. So, he said, one strategy is to shine a light on all the money going into the other side, then hope voters both notice and care.

“An opponent has to be proactive and point out the corporations bankrolling the initiative,” Maviglio said. “It’s just not a good place to be. Though in this political climate, with the anger about big corporations and big money, it might have a little more resonance.”

The “political climate” in question has a lot to do with the 5-4 decision the U.S. Supreme Court handed down in January in the case of Citizens United vs. the Federal Election Commission. The ruling, which applied to federal races, held that corporate and union donations outside of regular campaigns were protected under the free-speech provisions of the First Amendment.

This essentially lifted restrictions on how much money could go into “issue advertising” outside the scope of candidate campaigns. Multiple national polls in the weeks afterward showed that around three quarters of voters disagreed with the court’s position and felt that it would give well-heeled corporations and unions too much influence.

Compared to other campaigns fighting initiatives this year, though, the Clean Energy campaign has lots of advantages. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger will also be behind the effort to save AB 32. Major environmental groups will be involved in a big way.

And that vote isn’t until November. Those fighting Propositions 16 and 17 are facing even bigger financial mismatches, and they have only until the June 8 primary to make their case.
Proposition 16 would require a local two-thirds vote before local areas could create publicly owned municipal utility districts or “public power” programs known as “community choice aggregation projects,” or CCAs. The campaign behind Proposition 16, Californians to Protect Our Right to Vote, has gathered $34.7 million — all of it from Pacific Gas & Electric, except for $91,258 from a PAC run by the California Chamber of Commerce. While the opposition has been trying to make an issue of this money, the campaign is making their own financial arguments as well, said spokeswoman Robin Swanson.

“Nobody is hiding the fact that PG&E has put money into this campaign, working to communicate directly with voters,” Swanson said. “I don’t think we see this as an issue in the campaign, particularly when $2.5 billion in public money, taxpayer dollars, are at stake.”

That $2.5 billion figure is a reference to how much debt already-existing CCAs have piled up, she said. CCAs like to say this public debt is made up by lower rates but, Swanson said, “We’ve yet to see that cost savings.”

Arrayed against this is the $64,000 gathered so far by the No on Proposition 16 campaign, much of it from small individual donors. But Mindy Spatt, communications director with The Utility Reform Network (TURN), said that while the other side has the money, “We’ve got people who genuinely care.”  

This translates into people knocking on doors, attending meetings of local political groups, contacting every editorial board in the state, and working the free social media. There are numerous Facebook groups opposing Proposition 16, she said, most of them with no direct connection with the campaign. One goal is to keep a focus on the money.

“We point out that PG&E has only one source of money, and that’s their customers,” Spatt said. “Each ad you see, remember, if you’re a PG&E customer, you paid for that.”

Meanwhile, $64,000 is also about how much has been donated to the pro-Proposition 17 campaign by groups other than Mercury General Corp, sponsor of the measure. The insurer has donated all of the rest of the $10.4 million behind that effort, known as Californians for Fair Auto Insurance Rates.

Proponents say the initiative would allow insurers to give discounts to loyal customers. Critics of the industry say the initiative would allow carriers to penalize customers who shop around for the best price – a contention rejected by proponents, who note that voter-approved Proposition 103 prevents excessive and discriminatory rate hikes.

Campaign for Consumer Rights (CCR) is the principal funder behind Stop Proposition 17, the main group opposing the initiative; they’ve put in about $321,000 of the $580,000 they’ve gathered. The California Nurses Association has put in a quarter million dollars.

Being outgunned by a nearly 20-to-1 margin, said CCR spokesman Doug Heller, they’ve had to be careful with their money. Stop Proposition 17 has been running a 15-second spot around the state, designed to plant a seed of doubt in voters’ minds. That ad begins by pointing out that 99 percent of the money on the “yes” side has been donated by Mercury.

Heller also said his group is using blogs, word of mouth and editorial boards — the Los Angeles Times, Sacramento Bee, Bakersfield Californian and several other papers have come out against Proposition 17, he said. He also said they won a key battle over the ballot language, citing the possibility that insurance rates would rise.  

But Mike D’Arelli, the executive director of the Alliance of Insurance Agents and Brokers, an industry group that supports Proposition 17, said his side is also making economic arguments to voters.

He cited the value of being able to take the “persistency discount” — the discount given to people who maintain insurance over time — from one provider to another. The campaign claims that the initiative would benefit the 82 percent of drivers who currently have insurance, to the tune of $250 apiece. Their coalition includes numerous business groups, including several ethnic Chambers of Commerce.

In the meantime, he said, Mercury is taking a huge risk to their brand by sticking their necks out.

“The opponents like to make a big deal about this being an insurance industry-sponsored initiative, but there are plenty of insurance companies that aren’t anywhere near this thing,” D’Arelli said. “They like it the way it is. They like to have customers held hostage.”

So will the money mismatches be a real issue in these campaigns? Dan Newman, the executive director of the campaign watchdog group, thinks voter
s are getting fed up with financial excesses in campaigns.

“Any ballot measure predominately backed by a corporation is primarily going to benefit a corporation,” Newman said. “Corporations, by their nature, are not looking out for the public interest. Who is backing a measure is a key indicator of whether the measure is intended to benefit the public.”

It’s not just voices from the left who are troubled by some of these big donations. Anti-tax crusader Ted Costa was an early supporter of the effort to suspend AB 32, but came out last week against the Jobs Initiative effort. Assemblyman Dan Logue, R-Chico, said this was a case of “sour grapes” from someone who didn’t get the role in the campaign he wanted.

But Costa said the issue is far bigger than just the AB 32 campaign. Oil companies, PG&E and others have professionalized their campaigns, he said, when what they should have been doing is encouraging large numbers of people to volunteer and make small donations to build “broad-based movement.”

“In the old days, when there used to be independent groups out there,” Costa said. These days, he added, “if anyone is an independent group, they’re gonna be pushed out.”

Want to see more stories like this? Sign up for The Roundup, the free daily newsletter about California politics from the editors of Capitol Weekly. Stay up to date on the news you need to know.

Sign up below, then look for a confirmation email in your inbox.


Support for Capitol Weekly is Provided by: