Monday, May 16, 2005

Who Wants to Be a Millionaire Governor of California?

this is an audio post - click to play

California State Controller Steve Westly gave himself a huge vote of confidence last week, dropping $10 million bucks of his personal fortune into his 2006 gubernatorial campaign account. The 2006 California gubernatorial race is now shaping up nicely as a race between three rich guys: Westly (made a fortune with EBay), Phil Angelides (made a fortune as a developer), and Arnold Schwarzenegger (made a fortune as an actor).

Under California's current campaign finance laws, there are three ways to run for governor:

1) Be filthy rich. Steve Westly is following the trail blazed by past filthy rich people who would like to buy their way into office - Jane Harman and Al Checchi, to name a couple. Thanks to the post-Watergate Supreme Court ruling Buckley v. Valeo (1976), rich people can bankroll their own candidacies without any restraint. Mike Bloomberg benefited from the ruling when he spent $75 million to buy himself the NYC mayor's race in 2001. John Corzine is another poster-child for the self-financing candidate, spending $63 million to bankroll his successful 2002 bid to be a U.S. Senator from New Jersey.

2) Suck up to the filthy rich (the Gray Davis approach). Candidates for governor who have the support of the filthy rich can rake in campaign cash from people, corporations, and unions $22,300 at a time - that's $22,300 for the primary and another $22,300 for the general - $44,600 in reality. While this approach has been successful in the past, Californians recently showed their distaste for this approach when they kicked the master of this method out of office.
3) Be filthy rich and suck up to the filthy rich. Masters of this technique include the current governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and former gubernatorial candidate Bill Simon. Simon kicked in more than $10 million from his personal wealth to his 2002 campaign, in addition to collecting six-figure donations from his millionaire peers. Schwarzenegger is also a grand master of this method, putting around $14 million into his recall and campaign accounts from his personal fortune and through loans. Despite promises to the contrary and the voters' seemingly clear expression of loathing for the practice, Arnold is also a star when it comes to getting the big boys' bucks, raking in six- and seven-figure donations at an even faster breakneck pace than his ousted predecessor.

This system is designed to ensure that whoever makes it to the top of California politics is either rich or is backed by rich interests. Candidates who might represent middle and working class Californians are priced out by a system created by the state legislature to favor themselves and their primary constituents - wealthy interests.

The rest of us have cause for hope. Buckley has been weakened considerably in recent years, and is being challenged to the Supreme Court this year by a spending limit law in Vermont. And if faced with stubborn politicians who won't change their self-serving ways, Californians can go to the ballot to enact public financing for elections or to restore some sense to California's regime of contribution limits.

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