Thursday, September 15, 2005

The Brothers Berman Start Raising Soft Money

Life is pretty good as a congressman when you've got your brother drawing up the district you represent.

Such is the existence of California Representative Howard Berman, a liberal Democrat whose brother Michael (along with Michael's business partner, Carl D'Agostino) drew up the 2001 California redistricting plan - the same gerrymander which resulted in none of California's legislative or congressional seats switching party hands in 2004. Talk about your brother's keeper . . .

But life is not as sweet as it once was for Rep. Berman. A dark cloud has fallen across his safe and sunny existence as representative for California's 28th District . . . Prop 77. Prop 77, backed by Governor Schwarzenegger, would take the job of drawing districts away from the California Legislature and the hacks they hire to help them draw the districts and turn it over to a panel of retired judges.

Prop 77 has inspired enough fear in Rep. Berman that he joined forces with his ideological opposite, conservative Republican John Doolittle, to ask the Federal Elections Commission for what amounts to a waiver from the contribution limits on federal candidates found in the 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA).

The BCRA limits federal officeholders like Berman and Doolittle to raising or soliciting money towards "any election other than an election for federal office" in amounts of $5,000 or less from any one contributor. Despite this clear statutory language, and despite a prior FEC advisory opinion to AZ Rep. Jeff Flake saying the exact opposite, the FEC told Mssrs. Berman and Doolittle that they could raise and solicit money to fight Prop 77 in unlimited amounts.

It now appears as though Rep. Berman has begun to do just that. A committee titled "No on 77" has registered with the California Secretary of State's office to oppose Prop 77. The committee has already reported a donation of $50,000 from a single donor. While Berman is not officially associated with the committee according to its treasurer, a few pieces of information suggest that Berman and his brother are closely connected to the committee.

If you call the telephone number listed for the official filer, as I did today, a woman answers the phone "Padilla and Associates". Padilla and Associates is a professional campaign treasurer business run by Mary Ellen Padilla, whose clients include California state Rep. Fran Pavley, Bernard Parks, and several other California Democrats. Padilla and Associates is located at in a suite at 8665 Wilshire Boulevard in Beverly Hills, the same address as . . . Berman & D'Agostino Campaigns.

Ms. Padilla did not seem particularly inclined to answer my questions about Representative Berman's connections to No on 77. She initially indicated that Rep. Berman was involved on the campaign in some fashion, but would not provide any detail as to how, and specifically denied that he was raising money to support the No on 77 committee.

Uh-huh. Let's see how long the No on 77 folks stick with that tune.

Regardless of whether Rep. Berman is officially connected to the No on 77 Committee, it is clear that the brothers Berman have both benefited from California's broken system of drawing districts. Michael earned nearly $2 million from the state Democrats for his line-drawing in 2001, and another $20,000 a piece from 30 of the 32 Democrats in California's congressional delegation for protecting their seats. Howard's district was pulled and twisted and contorted (by his brother) to include voters favorable to his political leanings until it looked like a wishbone.

As the brothers Berman and the rest of California's politicians have benefited, California democracy and the rest of us have suffered. As California's politicians have gone about divvying up their various bailiwicks, political discourse in the state has atrophied. Voters no longer benefit from a competition of ideas, but must suffer through the World War I-style trench warfare that safe districts have helped bring to Sacramento politics. And now, with the FEC complicit in undermining California and federal campaign finance laws, yet another politician is using big money to further his own interests, instead of the public's.

Rep. Berman and Doolittle have already shown considerable chutzpah in aligning themselves with wealthy interests at the expense of California voters. We'll be keeping an eye on the No on 77 committee to see whether Berman continues his current charade.

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