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Legislators tap Sacramento interests for campaign cash

State lawmakers returned to the Capitol this week to finish off the
legislative year, but legislating isn’t the only task they’ll be up to in
August. For just about everybody, it’s time to renew a classic Sacramento
pastime: raising big-time campaign cash.

This month, there are more than 100 fund-raisers scheduled for almost every
would-be and current lawmaker in the state, according to invitations
obtained by Capitol Weekly.

“Sometimes there are 15 of these in a day,” complains one veteran lobbyist,
who notes that the glut of events is nothing new. “For the month of August,
we don’t see our family and, for some, access to a private life is
suspended. Under the current system, they have to ask, and we have to
contribute.”

The rush of events coincides–not coincidentally–with a three-week sprint in
which the Legislature will decide of the fate of more than 1,500 bills, from
building new prisons to curbing greenhouse-gas emissions.

The fund-raising blitz peaks on August 16, when legislators and legislative
hopefuls play host to at least 20 different events across town. The
largesse-filled day begins at 7:30 a.m. with Assemblyman Dennis Mountjoy,
R-Monrovia, and ends at 9 p.m. at Gallagher’s, with Assemblyman Dave
Cogdill, R-Modesto. The price tag to attend all the day’s events tops
$23,000.

That Wednesday, the number of events in Sacramento outstrips the usual
fund-raiser locations, so Chops, a regular Capitol watering hole, will host
simultaneous fund-raisers for Assemblyman Guy Houston, R-Livermore, and
Assembly candidate Anna Caballero, a Democrat.

The same is true for the previous night. And the following Tuesday, there
are a trio of different breakfast fund-raisers scheduled at the Sheraton
Grand–at the same time.

Tim Hodson, executive director of the Center for California Studies, calls
August “a perverse window of opportunity for fund-raising,” as it is one of
the few times that legislators hold the undivided attention of moneyed
interests.

The convergence of contributors cutting checks and legislators casting votes
invariably leads to questions of ethical misconduct, says Hodson.

“The perception of wrongdoing, the perception of corruption, can be as
corrosive as corruption itself,” says Hodson, who spent 20 years working in
the Capitol. “There is a problem with holding so many fund-raisers in so
short a time when so many bills will be decided.”

Under California’s campaign-finance laws, donations to legislators are
limited to $3,300 for the primary and general elections. But most events
comes with a minimum price tag of $1,000.

A sampling of the invitations shows that legislators look for just about
every conceivable reason to host a fund-raiser.

One of the most common is the birthday bash. This month alone, Assemblywoman
Bonnie Garcia, R-Cathedral City, Assemblyman Ron Calderon, D-Montebello,
Sen. Elaine Alquist, D-Santa Clara, Sen. Carole Migden, D-San Francisco, and
Sen. Abel Maldonado, R-Santa Maria, are holding birthday events.

Maldonado actually is hosting two birthday parties–a week apart–though
neither falls on his official birthday. In fact, none of the legislative
“birthday bashes” are scheduled on actual birthdays of legislators.
Some legislators lean on their culture or personal history to lure donors.

Anthony Portantino, an Italian Democrat and Los Angelides Assembly
candidate, invites would-be supporters to “a taste of Italy.” Sen. Gil
Cedillo, D-Los Angeles, invites donors to watch a theatrical play about two
brothers one of whom, “‘Gilbert,’ is an ambitious state senator.” from Los
Angeles.

Cedillo, who “normally has one or two events at the end of session,” says
the play is a “composite” of himself and “several other L.A. lawmakers.”

Other legislators wine and dine contributors at restaurants of their ethnic
background. There are three August fund-raisers at Frank Fat’s, a
Chinese-food restaurant and longtime Capitol haunt. Each of the three events
is hosted by an Chinese-American candidate: Fiona Ma, Betty Yee and
Assemblywoman Wilma Chan.

Two blocks away, at Texas Mexican restaurant, there are also three August
events–all hosted by Latinos: Assemblyman Joe Baca Jr., Tony Mendoza and
Jose Solorio.

Still, other legislators create district-related themes for their
fund-raisers, such as Assemblywoman Noreen Evans, D-Santa Rosa, who is
hosting “an evening with outstanding Napa Valley wine and delicious food” on
August 15.

Ironically, many big-time donors privately say they can’t stand the
contrived fund-raiser themes that legislators work so hard to concoct.

“Lobbyists are not interested in themes. They are not interested in being
entertained,” says a veteran Capitol lobbyist. “They are interested in
getting in, making contact with the elected official present, sharing and
picking up intelligence, and moving on.”

He adds, “The worst nightmare are the river cruises. Arriving at the dock
and finding out you are going to trapped on a boat with bad food and people
you just spent all day with is too much.”

The vast majority of August fund-raisers take place within walking distance
of the Capitol. The most popular destinations are the Sheraton Hotel,
Spataro and the Esquire Grill, with 12, 11 and 10 events, respectively. The
Sheraton and Spataro are more bipartisan locations, while nine of the 10
Esquire events are Republican-sponsored.

Other hot spots include Pyramid Brewery (eight events), the Smith Gallery
(six), Chops (five) and Gallagher’s (five).

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has two Sacramento events, including one slated
to feature former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani. Democratic challenger Phil
Angelides held an event in Sacramento Wednesday, featuring former NBA star
Earvin “Magic” Johnson.

Some of the busiest legislators this August are the Democratic leadership,
who jump from event to event of members–and potential members–of their
caucuses, besides hosting their own events. Assembly Speaker Fabian N


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