They are like highway brigands–crouching in the weeds, armed to the teeth
and waiting to pounce. These are the independent-expenditure (IE)
committees, a stealthy creature of California politics that was formed for
no other reason except to affect elections and provide a haven for limitless
amounts of campaign cash.
“It’s a difficult issue to grasp, but at its core the
independent-expenditure committee is a basic First Amendment issue,” says
Lianne Randolph, chairwoman of the state Fair Political Practices Commission
(FPPC). “A person or group says, ‘I have something to say, and I am going to
package it in the form of a mailer or a radio ad or a TV ad, and I’m going
to say my piece.’ The Supreme Court has been very protective of a person’s
right to speak in terms of expenditures.”
California voters overwhelmingly approved Proposition 34 in 2000, which set
limits on candidates’ campaign contributions, expanded the fiscal clout of
the state political parties and tightened some disclosure requirements.
Critics of Proposition 34 said the measure was a smoke screen to head off a
sweeping campaign-finance reform issue that was then languishing in the
courts. The bottom line was that Proposition 34 didn’t lower campaign
spending, but simply redirected it to other groups–including the IEs.
But IE committees can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money for or
against any candidate or issue. They needn’t disclose their sources of money
until late in the election cycle. They typically weigh in at critical
junctures, and almost always in the most competitive races. They especially
like primaries, and their ads often are indistinguishable from those of the
candidates. The only requirement is that the IEs act independently of any
candidate’s political campaign.
“They are made for competitive races,” said Bob Stern of the Center for
Governmental Studies and a specialist in campaign finance. “And most people
don’t see the difference. If they attack [Steve] Westly and cross the line,
voters would blame [Phil] Angelides. That’s one of the problems of IEs for
candidates–the candidates don’t have any control over them.”
State records officially identify some 70 IE committees, or IEs that are
actively engaged in the 2006 election cycle.
But this figure doesn’t include scores of other committees that do not
formally describe themselves as IEs in their titles but nonetheless can
independently spend money to influence the outcome of an election. Nor does
it include the major donors who, if their fancy strikes them, can act as
IEs, according to the state-elections officer. Finally, the amount and
sources of the IEs true financial strength is unknown at this time, although
it will become clearer after the May 25 disclosure deadline.
As of May 17, the list of well-financed IEs reflected many of the power
players of California politics.
The California Correctional Peace Officers Association’s (CCPOA) IE, sitting
on $3.5 million in cash, is spending heavily. The California Association of
Realtors has about $1 million, so does the accountants’ IE. EdVoice, an
educational-policy group, spent some $375,000 during the first quarter and
has some $388,000. More is likely to flow into–and out of–EdVoice’ coffers
before Election Day.
JobsPAC, a bipartisan committee of the California Chamber of Commerce,
dumped nearly $160,000 in 42 separate donations into five Assembly races on
Monday, including $22,000 on behalf of Anna Caballero in the 28th Assembly
District. Californians United for a Responsible Budget, financed by a
coalition of business groups, donated nearly $138,000 in the past three
weeks, including $60,000 to help Claudia Alvarez in the 69th Assembly
District and $60,000 to boost Fiona Ma in the 12th Senate District. On
Tuesday, Californians United gave $30,000 to help Orange County Supervisor
Lou Correa, a Democratic candidate in the 34th Senate District.
Since May 2, a coalition of nurses and lawyers donated more than
$200,000–most of it to oppose Assemblyman John Dutra’s bid for the 10th
Meanwhile, the CCPOA’s IE has donated nearly $400,000 in six weeks,
including nearly $150,000 in four days to Democratic Assemblyman Rudy
Bermudez, a former parole officer seeking the 30th Senate District seat, and
$236,000 to Republican Assemblyman Tom Harman of Huntington Beach in his
razor-thin victory in the 35th Senate District in last month’s special
In some cases, an IE’s spending–even when it’s on behalf of a particular
candidate–can confuse that candidate’s campaign message.
“I don’t think it happens often, but it does happen. That’s why a candidate
would prefer not to have contribution limits. Candidates always want to
control the message,” Stern said.