Independent groups pony up $8.5 million on legislative races

4:26 PM, May 25, 2012   |    comments
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Independent groups, unburdened by campaign contribution limits, have contributed some $8.5 million this campaign season towards electing or defeating dozens of candidates for the California Legislature.

And they're clearly not done, with the June 5 primary election less than two weeks away.

California laws place pretty strict limits on the size of contributions to the actual candidate campaigns.  But for more than a decade, independent groups have been able -- as long as there's no legal coordination -- to spend whatever they want.

Independent expenditure (IE) efforts aren't always that easy to track, but a new compilation by the California politics website Around The Capitol gives a pretty good sense of the money moves that have been made in legislative races up and down the state.

And in most cases, the IE money is flowing to support candidates that buck the conventional wisdom about the two major parties -- that is, efforts to help more moderate Democrats and Republicans.

Tops on the list appears to be the heated race for the 46th Assembly district, which lies in and around Sherman Oaks.  Democrat Brian Johnson is the guy in the middle of large political shoving match between charter school advocates and the state's largest teachers union... with money from a former Democratic adviser to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger thrown in for good measure.

Johnson is a charter school advocate and one of six candidates vying for the seat.  But his candidacy alone has attracted almost $1.3 million of IE contributions, including opposition bombardments from the California Teachers Association and return fire support from a new IE led by ex-Schwarzenegger adviser and public employee pension crusader David Crane.

Big bucks are also being spent by IE committees in the 74th Assembly district, where conservative incumbent Assemblyman Allan Mansoor finds himself being hit hard by both public safety unions and wealthy GOP donor Charles Munger, Jr.   Both groups are backing rival (and more moderate) Republican Leslie Daigle to the tune of almost $600,000 in IE money.

It's important to note that independent expenditure committees have been legal in California since 2000, when legislators craftily eviscerated a campaign finance law they didn't like -- 1996's Proposition 208 -- with the more lenient Proposition 34.

Prop 34 promised new strict limits on candidate fundraising, but it also allowed donations of any and all amounts to the political parties and to independent political committees.

Those IE campaign committees are, in truth, now the talk of politics all across the nation.  The 2010 Citizens United ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court has -- as many expected -- opened the floodgates to unlimited money much in the same way Prop 34 did in California years earlier.

This year's independent political spending will easily break existing records, in large part because of California's new political environment -- the 'top two' primary rules and redrawn political districts.  Whether the money makes a difference, though, remains to be seen.


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