Campaign group demands answers from Poizner

The war of words and money between the two sides of the term limits initiative heated up this week as proponents sent a letter to Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner demanding answers about where some of the money on the “no” side came from.
Meanwhile, the past couple of weeks have seen big money coming in on the “yes” side. This money may serve to counter a combined $3 million given to the No campaign by Poizner and a group affiliated with New York developer Howard Rich. The No campaign has characterized many of the donations as a political shakedown and has sought to bring attention to the difficulty its opponents had in getting an endorsement from the California Democratic Party.

Proposition 93 goes to voters in February. It would reduce legislative term limits from 14 years to 12 but would allow legislators to spend the entire time in one house.

The Yes on 93 campaign highlighted a letter to Poizner from  the California League of Conservation Voters. The letter alleges that Rich—who is well-known for his generous support of conservative causes such as term limits and eminent domain reform—used nonprofits to shield donors to his organizations from scrutiny.

“You have claimed to support political reform, but now you’ve accepted $1.5 million in campaign contributions from an out-of-state source that refuses to say who gave the money or why,” the letter states.

At issue is $1.5 million that the Rich-affiliated group U.S. Term Limits Inc. gave to another group, the Alliance for California Renewal, to use against 93. They go on to say that U.S. Term Limits was $300,000 in debt at the end of 2005, and they are demanding to know where the money came from.

“It didn’t just fall out of the sky,” said Yes on 93 spokesman Richard Stapler. “And if it did, please tell me where, so I can go stand there and get some money for myself.”

The focus on Rich marks a tactical change in the fight over Proposition 93. Proponents are hoping that voters will support the measure when they learn who the initiative’s opponents are. “This is about voters making an informed decision about Proposition 93,” Stapler said, adding that Rich “could be the potential source of this $1.5 million.”

“Information about donors provides an important smell test for voters,” said Oliver Griswold of the Washington, D.C.-based Ballot Initiative Strategy Center.

Whether or not that message will be enough to convince voters to vote for a change in the state term limits law remains to be seen.

But this much remains clear: There will be big money pouring in on both sides. Neither side is exactly hurting for donations. Since Nov. 13, the Yes on 93 side has taken in approximately $1.2 million. This includes $500,000 from the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, $250,000 from the California Teachers Association, $150,000 from the California State Council of Laborers, and $100,000 from E&J Gallo Winery.

The No on 93 side has consistently portrayed such contributions as a “shakedown” of public employee unions and businesses that depend on the goodwill of the Legislature. Kevin Spillane, a spokesman for the No campaign, said his group is actually pleasantly surprised.

“Frankly, their financial situation is not as strong as we expected at this point,” he said.

He also pointed to the recent California Democratic Party executive board meeting. Nearly half of E-board members voted to stay neutral, and the endorsement passed only due to heavy lobbying by CDP chairman Art Torres, Spillane said.

Assembly Speaker Fabian Núñez, D-Los Angeles, reportedly asked all 47 members of his caucus to give $50,000. But $50,000 donors automatically get their names attached to the committee name. According to the most recent campaign disclosures, only seven have taken him up on it, and only two—Ted Lieu, D-Torrance, and Karen Bass, D-Los Angeles, who is frequently mentioned as a possible successor at speaker—have given the full amount. Assemblymembers Fiona Ma, D-San Francisco, and Dave Jones, D-Sacramento, have each chipped in $45,000. On Monday, Assemblyman Hector De La Torre, D-South Gate, donated $25,000.

On the Senate side, Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, recently gave $150,000. As a strong candidate to replace Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata, D-Oakland, if he’s termed out, the money raised some eyebrows. Spillane characterized it as Steinberg showing his fundraising strength in hopes of becoming president pro tem.

“That’s a campaign platform appeal to his colleagues,” Spillane said. “I don’t think he expects 93 to pass.”

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