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Money Change$ Everything

Political action committees are once again at the center of an election scandal as the gloves come off in the battle for the District 11 state Senate seat. But to really follow the money, you have to take a closer look.

By Sarah Phelan

On Nov. 4, 2002, one day before the election that would decide the heated county-supervisor race between incumbent Mardi Wormhoudt and challenger Mark Primack, Primack got a big, nasty surprise. Splashed above the fold of the Sentinel's front-page was a headline claiming he had received $25,000 of "developers'" money. The contribution had come from an independent political action committee, or PAC. Primack's camp disputed how the story--particularly the headline--had characterized the contribution, but it was too late. Wormhoudt went on to win, and some think the PAC scandal cost Primack the election.

Eighteen months later, as we approach the March 2 election, details have emerged of a yet another PAC contribution, and once again, it ain't pretty. In fact, the race for state Senate District 11 has turned remarkably ugly with the revelation that Democrat and former San Mateo county Supe and Assemblymember Ted Lempert received nearly $200,000 from a PAC called Northern Californians for a Strong Economy. Lempert's Democratic opponent Joe Simitian has made much of the fact that two of the biggest contributors to Northern Californians for a Strong Economy are GAP founder Don Fisher and Wal-Mart heir John Walton.

It probably isn't helping Lempert that he recently appeared outside the county building holding a sign saying "Campaign Finance Reform Matters," a photo opportunity doubtless designed to highlight the fact that, unlike Simitian, Lempert had agreed to abide by Prop. 34's $637,000 voluntary campaign spending limits. Simitian took some hits on that issue then, and he's undoubtedly looking for payback right now. Which is, in case you forgot, a bitch.

What's especially weird about all this is that up until the PAC bombshell, Lempert's crusading for campaign finance reform was thought to be one of the only major differences between these two Democratic candidates, who are both lawyers with degrees from Stanford, and have strong records on education, the environment and gay marriage, as well as a history of legislative effectiveness.

And no matter whose side you're on in this race, Simitian seems positively prescient on the PAC issue when you look back now on his response to the announcement that Lempert's campaign had stopped fundraising--that was all fine and good, he said, except that the real problem with campaign finance is that under Prop. 34 a number of special interest groups can still spend an unlimited amount of money in the final stretch of the campaign.

As it happens, details of a PAC that has donated $65,000 in support of Simitian are surfacing even as we go to press. All this begs the question as to whether this revelation will actually harm Simitian at all (since he never did claim to abide by campaign finance reform), and just how much the Lempert PAC revelations will harm Lempert's chances of winning the Democratic nomination for the 11th state Senate District, which, thanks to redistricting, has reduced Santa Cruz County to the tail that wags the dog of a now largely inland district that also includes San Carlos, Campbell, Cupertino and parts of San Jose.

The Plot Thickens

Were it not for redistricting, Santa Cruz progressives would be rallying behind termed-out Assemblymember Fred Keeley for the seat, instead of debating the merits of these two Democrats, both of whom were unknowns locally until they started campaigning. Simitian dashed out of the starting gate way earlier than Lempert, who claims he waited, out of respect, until Keeley said he definitely wasn't running.

Either way, Simitian's early start reaped him the endorsement of every Democratic club in the county, as well as the County Democratic Central Committee and the California Democratic Party, plus six of seven members of the Santa Cruz City Council and many other environmental, education and democratic organizations including the National Organization of Women; Congressmembers Nancy Pelosi, Anna Eshoo and Sam Farr; and Assemblymembers Fabian Nuñez, Mark Leno and Simon Salinas, to name but a few.

But once Lempert did start campaigning, his equally strong record won him the endorsement of local leaders like Chris Krohn, Katherine Beiers, Celia Scott, Bruce Van Allen, Kathy Bisbee, Ruth Hunter, Julie Conway, Sharon Elerick and Diane Siri, county supe of schools. On the larger election map, he swung the support of the man whose seat he hopes to fill, state Sen. Byron Sher. He also has backing from heavy hitters like state Sen. John Vasconcelles, the Sierra Club, the California League of Conservation Voters, Vote the Coast, the California Labor Federation AFL-CIO, the GLBT Alliance of Santa Cruz, the California Highway Patrol, State Treasurer Phil Angelides and state Superintendent of Schools Jack O'Connell.

When the Simitian team unearthed details of the PAC in support of Lempert, Simitian supporter and Santa Cruz Mayor Scott Kennedy sent out an email pronouncing that until campaign finance reform addresses independent expenditures, it remains "more a matter of appearance than real substance."

Lempert's reply, predictably, was that he knew nothing about the PAC--but that, had Simitian agreed to spending caps, then less money would have been spent on this race.

Meanwhile, the Simitian camp--in an equally predictable attempt to make Lempert's support of campaign-finance reform seem ironic--pounced on the fact that if you include the PAC contributions, more money will have been spent on trying to get Lempert elected.

The PAC Backlash

It's enough to make even the most hard-baked politico wonder whether PACs hinder, rather than help, the candidates whom they seek to support. Take, for instance, the fact that these supposedly pro-Lempert donors each donated $31,250, which is 10 times the limit they'd have been allowed if they'd contributed directly to Lempert's campaign. Or the fact that they each have the kind of brand-name connections that typically sit badly with local Lempert fans such as Chris Krohn, Katherine Beiers and Celia Scott.

To further complicate matters, Gap founder Fisher and Wal-Mart heir Walton both sit on the board of advisers to EdVoice, Lempert's education-related lobbying outfit in Sacramento, and are charter schools advocates.

Perhaps weirdest of all, if the politicians in Sacramento had had the guts to vote for the ethics reform plan that Lempert proposed while assemblymember for San Mateo, then the committee calling itself Northern Californians for a Strong Economy might not even have been in existence, or at the very least would have been much more limited in the contributions that it could make.

Instead, PACs can still contribute to campaigns in any shape and form they so choose, with the only rule being that the so-called beneficiary cannot know what they are up to. That has Simitian supporters branding Lempert the biggest hypocrite running for state Senate, while Lempert fans maintain their man is a victim of the system he tried to change.

On the truly wacky tip, there are even conspiracy theorists who note that Fisher, Walton and company must have known that their support was going to make Lempert look bad, and 10 times worse if funneled via a PAC, which is why they raised almost $200,000 to run ads in support of him, as a way to ensure that he wouldn't get sent back to Sacramento, since his being in office would number their days of being able to influence through money. But not even we here at Metro Santa Cruz aren't paranoid enough to buy that one.

The Fine Print

Meanwhile, what probably won't get heavily scrutinized are the total contributions that both candidates received between 2000 and 2004 from corporations and business PACs--totals which find both getting money from pretty unpalatable (to Cruz voters) sources, but with Simitian way ahead of
the game.

Of special interest to county residents might be the fact that Simitian received $79, 950 from the real estate industry, including $14,000 from Western Manufactured Housing Communities Association, the group whose deep pockets helped defeat mobile home rent control at De Anza Mobile Home park in Santa Cruz last year. And then there's the $6,455 from the lumber industry, including Pacific Lumber and the California Forestry Association; and another $6,750 from the food industry, including $2,500 from Safeway, whose SoCal workers are currently striking over health care; $44,500 from the health-care industry; $80,263 from the technology and telecommunications industries; $9,000 from the automobile industry; $10, 250 from oil; $10,750 from construction; $31,700 from developers; and $31,500 from the gambling industry ... and the list goes on and on,

Compare this to Lempert, who has $ 6,250 from the real estate industry; $6,750 from the food industry, including $2,500 from Safeway and $1,500 from Coca Cola Enterprises; $17,045 from the health-care industry; and $15,200 from the technology and telecommunications industry, including $4,200 from Microsoft (which Simitian has been battling over online privacy issues).

On the whole, Lempert and Simitian are both considered to be highly qualified candidates--maybe equally so. They've both been working overtime to assert their credentials both locally and around the district.

Simitian seems to pop up at just about every pancake breakfast in town to introduce himself as the current assemblymember for Palo Alto, who is perhaps best known for his "There Oughta Be a Law'' contest which solicits legislative suggestions from the public, and his ability to persuade legislators to approve a $400,000 payment to East Palo Alto resident Rick Walker, who spent 12 years in prison for a murder he didn't commit.

Lempert is walking his butt off in this race, as he goes precinct to precinct, to introduce himself as the former San Mateo supe and state assemblymember who helped write the California Coastal Sanctuary Act, helped give California the strictest oil-spill laws in the country and never once voted to cut funding for K-12.

How much this PAC scandal will affect the final tally isn't clear, but one thing is painfully clear: there's still way too much money in politics. And whatever these big campaign contributors give, when it comes to a candidate's image among voters like those here in Santa Cruz County, they can also take away.

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From the February 25-March 3, 2004 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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