Blue rift

‘Dark money’ bill pits Democratic legislators against rising progressives

Trent Lang, president of the California Clean Money Campaign, leads protesters from across California in a recent Capitol rally against AB 84.

Trent Lang, president of the California Clean Money Campaign, leads protesters from across California in a recent Capitol rally against AB 84.

Photo by Scott Thomas Anderson

Did top-ranking Democrats in the state house declare war on the California Democratic Party? That question was in the air as the legislative session entered its final days, after two Democratic state senators voted to move forward a bill co-authored by the speaker of the Assembly, one that critics describe as the biggest rollback of campaign finance reform in a decade.

In doing so, the two senators—the speaker and veteran Democratic Assemblyman Kevin Mullin—ignored deafening protests from party leaders, along with some 50 Democratic clubs and central committees and most good governance organizations in the state. The controversial bill headed for floor votes in the Assembly and Senate, pushing more elected Democrats to jump in a fight over the future of the party.

When Daraka Larimore-Hall walked out of the state house Aug. 14, he needed a cigarette and a few moments to calm down. Larimore-Hall is the vice chair of the California Democratic Party. He had just made an impassioned plea to the State Senate Standing Committee on Elections and Constitutional Amendments to kill Assembly Bill 84.

The measure, he argued, would take Democrats in the opposite direction from the will of the people. Larimore-Hall then watched two Democratic senators ignore him in the committee hearing and push AB 84 forward.

But those veteran politicians weren’t just ignoring Larimore-Hall and the California Democratic Party; AB 84 also faces adamant opposition from the California League of Women Voters, the California Clean Money Campaign, California Common Cause, the California Public Research Institute, and Indivisible and Democratic central committees from Fresno to Glenn counties.

Authored by Mullin, the bill allows the Assembly speaker, the Senate president pro tem and both minority leaders to create new leadership party caucus committees—organizations that would be allowed to accept campaign contributions of up to $36,500, which is eight times the legal limit for individual candidates. The bill also permits those caucus committees to move unlimited funds toward campaign expenditures for candidates within each leader’s respective party.

The ability for legislative leaders to financially circle the wagons around their allies led California League of Women Voters Deputy Director Dora Rose to call AB 84 “an incumbent protection act.”

Rose was among those protesting on the Capitol lawn an hour before testimony began on Aug. 14. During the hearing, Mullin had zero experts or witnesses speaking in support of his bill.

“The reality is elections in California are enormously expensive,” Mullin pointed out. “To get your message out, it is increasingly expensive, and until we come up with another way, like public financing, we have to fundraise to get elected and stay elected.”

Mullin also stressed his bill requires campaign finance disclosure forms to be filed more often.

But Larimore-Hall countered that AB 84’s modest gains in transparency could have been done without creating four new avenues for corporations and special interest groups to channel money to legislative leaders.

“You know, the Democratic Party isn’t known for being always in lock-step,” Larimore-Hall said at the hearing, “but for a party that has been at each others’ throats for the last year … this bill has unified the party more than anything I’ve seen.”

Larimore-Hall also noted that, though the state party currently can accept donations at that $36,500 limit, it has officially banned contributions from big oil, the private prison industry, charter schools and tobacco corporations. That won’t necessarily be the case with the four new caucus committees.

“We made those decisions, tough as they are … because of overwhelming pressure from our grassroots activists,” Larimore-Hall told committee members. “It was a democratic decision. AB 84 would allow [legislative] leadership to sidestep that democratic decision.”

Yet committee member Robert Hertzberg, a San Fernando Democrat who’s been a legislator since 1996, expressed skepticism about leaders in the Assembly and Senate being bound to what he called “factions” in their parties, especially in an era of Democrats vying against Democrats in California’s open primaries.

Hertzberg also questioned what was wrong with allowing the new caucus committees to accept up to $36,500, since both state parties do that now.

Nicolas Heidorn, policy and legal director for California Common Cause, had a response: “The party doesn’t make laws, you guys make the laws.”

Not long after Heidorn’s comment, Democratic committee member Connie Leyva of Chino announced she was supporting AB 84 because of the beating some in her party recently took at the hands of shadowy super political action committees. “This might be a way to fight back,” Leyva said.

The committee voted 3-2 to forward the bill, with Democrats Henry Stern and Benjamin Allen voting against it. As he left, Larimore-Hall told the N&R, “This isn’t over.”

He was right. Last Monday (Aug. 27), the bill was punted to the inactive file at the request of Democratic Sen. Bill Monning of Culver City, essentially neutralizing it for the year.