A plausible conspiracy

Is Prop. 34 posing as campaign finance reform, or is it a repeal of real reform? Theories abound.

Campaign finance reform advocate Tony Miller has worked almost full time to defeat Proposition 34, which he sees as a deceptive effort indedned to scale back reforms approved by voters in 1996.

Campaign finance reform advocate Tony Miller has worked almost full time to defeat Proposition 34, which he sees as a deceptive effort indedned to scale back reforms approved by voters in 1996.

Photo By Jill Wagner

Official opponents:

Tony Miller and Lonni Granlund are each political activists, each working out of small, underfunded offices at opposite ends of the state, and each supposedly working to defeat the campaign finance reform measure Proposition 34. But Miller and Granlund are closer to enemies than allies.

Miller, perhaps California’s most active and vocal crusader for campaign finance reform, sees Granlund as part of a high-level conspiracy to trick voters into repealing the most stringent political fund-raising and spending limits in the country, Proposition 208.

If approved by voters next month, Prop. 34 would set contribution and spending caps far higher than those set by Prop. 208, the 1996 measure authored by Miller and overwhelmingly approved by voters. But Prop. 208 has yet to be implemented after being tied up in federal court by a lawsuit brought by the two major political parties.

Yet rather than wait for that ruling, leaders of California’s two major political parties placed Prop. 34 on the ballot, with language repealing key parts of 208. And they did it in an unusually rapid way that allowed for little public input or scrutiny. And then, they appointed Lonni Granlund to run the opposition campaign.

Despite being the officially listed opposition organization, Granlund’s Western Group hasn’t raised or spent any money or mounted a campaign to defeat Prop. 34—a stark contrast to the hyperactive efforts of Miller’s Californians Against Phony Reform, which includes such disparate groups as California Common Cause, the League of Women Voters and the American Association of Retired Persons.

Western Group got its appointment thanks to Lonni’s husband, Assemblyman Brett Granlund, R-Yucaipa. He voted against the legislation that created Prop. 34 and co-authored the official ballot arguments against the measure. Both Granlunds say they resent Miller’s charges that Western Group’s “opposition campaign” is a sham.

“I never met Tony Miller. I don’t know Tony Miller. Who is Tony Miller? Who appointed him? Who elected him? He runs no organization I know of. He’s just a malcontent,” said Assemblyman Granlund.

“Malcontent” is a label Miller probably wouldn’t dispute. He is a lawyer who has spent the last 25 years in public life fighting for campaign finance reform. The only offices he has held have been appointed positions: first as a charter member of the Fair Political Practices Commission and, later, as acting Secretary of State, succeeding March Fong Eu, but then being defeated in his first election by Republican Bill Jones.

In recent years, Miller has been the Don Quixote of campaign finance reform, waging an aggressive solo battle for statewide reforms such as Prop. 208. He’s also utilized a new state law that allows disinterested third parties to sue politicians over violations of campaign finance laws and, as a reward, to collect a portion of the resulting fine money. He’s sued everyone from the Gov. Davis down to City Council candidates.

As such, Miller has elicited scorn from many officeholders, yet he continues his quest undaunted. During this election cycle, Miller has dropped his lone-wolf act to work out of Common Cause’s tiny Sacramento office as part of the Californians Against Phony Reform coalition.

The coalition’s theory goes like this: Senate leader John Burton, Gov. Gray Davis and other top Democrats conspired with Sen. Ross Johnson, Secretary of State Bill Jones and other top Republicans to kill 208, a voter-approved measure that would squeeze off their fund-raising lifeblood.

Knowing how popular campaign finance reform is with California voters, the conspirators knew the only way to do that was with a “phony reform” measure. Presented as reform, Prop. 34 sets high limits and even exempts Davis’s re-election race from those limits, thus fooling voters into weakening the state’s fund-raising caps.

To make the ruse work, the conspirators against Miller created an opposition campaign (Western Group) that was virtually nonexistent and an official title and summary that fails to mention that Prop. 34 would invalidate Prop. 208. And to top it all off, politicians even have the political cover of claiming their support for Prop. 34 is support for campaign finance reform, rather than a weakening of previous reforms.

“The brazenness of it surprised me. It’s the sleaziest thing I’ve seen in 20 years of state politics,” said Jim Knox, executive director of Common Cause. “It’s such a deliberate attempt to fool the voters, and it offended me to the core.”

Knox came to the helm of Common Cause three years ago, after a long career in environmental politics, mostly for the Planning and Conservation League. There, he learned about the importance of campaign finance reform by watching positive environmental policies subverted by politicians who were supported by well-heeled oil companies and other polluters.

The corrupting influence of money on politics is apparent to many, even many politicians, especially at a time when people such as Gov. Davis—whom Miller calls the “poster child for campaign finance reform"—-are smashing previous fund-raising records. Yet incumbent politicians also know that enacting tough reforms could help kill their careers, because they generally get the most and biggest contributions.

“Elected officials with integrity don’t act with integrity on this issue because they see it as a life-and-death issue,” Knox said, adding that with Prop. 34, “the fix was in. The entire political establishment came together for this.”

“It’s a sham, it’s a charade, it’s phony reform,” Miller said. “People will vote thinking this is reform. We’re going to lose if we can’t break through [the official ballot statements], because people are hungry for reform. If I could talk to every voter, there’s no doubt how this would turn out.”

But Lonni Granlund says she isn’t part of any conspiracy, and she resents the attacks by Miller and his coalition. Granlund said she would have been happy to work with Miller’s group from the beginning, and that all he had to do was pick up the phone and call.

In fact, Granlund said she didn’t even have Miller’s phone number and that she would gladly have forwarded him calls she’s received with questions about Prop. 34. Granlund also said she would have been happy to work with Miller’s coalition from the start. She denied that assuming the opposition role was just a move to ensure there would be no opposition.

“Even if it was a conspiracy [to appoint me], I was committed to doing a good job,” she said.

Western Group has done consulting and fund-raising work for local campaigns, but this is its first statewide campaign. Actually, these are its first two statewide campaigns. Granlund is actively working to pass Proposition 33, a measure authored by her husband that would expand the retirement benefits available to state legislators.

Assemblyman Brett Granlund with his wife, Lonni, and two sons. Lonni Granlund’s Western Group is the official opposition group to Proposition 34, although she has done little to defeat the measure.

Granlund said most of her efforts this election season have been devoted to Prop. 33, not Prop. 34, which she said she took on without pay simply because she got a call saying nobody else wanted to do it: “There was nobody to list as the opponents at the time, so I volunteered.”

That call came from a member of the Republican caucus, who had been directed to make the call by Assemblyman Granlund, the legislator confirmed. Granlund is a three-term legislator who is now being ousted by term limits. He defends his action by saying he wasn’t aware of anyone else interested in running the opposition campaign.

Miller, however, said both he and Knox over the summer had aggressively lobbied Assemblyman Granlund to be named to the opposition group and to have a say in the ballot arguments against the measure. But Miller and Knox were rebuffed.

Granlund disputes Miller’s version of events—acknowledging only that he received sample ballot arguments by fax from Common Cause—but said he wouldn’t have been inclined to appoint the coalition anyway.

“I disagree with Prop. 34 for a totally different reason than they do,” he said.

The Granlunds oppose limits on campaign funding and spending, saying it creates an uneven playing field that benefits candidates with personal wealth and hinders the ability of politicians to communicate with voters. The only campaign finance reform that Assemblyman Granlund said he supports are online instant reporting of donations and a ban on transferring contributions to other campaigns.

The leaders of both parties also deny there is any conspiracy to fool voters, although after the initial uproar over the speedy passage of the bill that created Prop. 34, both Jones and Davis issued public statements critical of the lack of public input.

Nathan Barankin, spokesman for Attorney General Bill Lockyer, said he tried to stay above the politics in drafting the ballot title and summary. Although the summary is supposed to say how a measure would change current law, Barankin said Prop. 34’s repeal of Prop. 208 wasn’t mentioned because 208 has never been implemented.

“There are too few words that we are allowed to work with to accurately describe what an initiative would do,” said Barankin.

If Prop. 34 is defeated, the fate of Prop. 208 will be decided soon after the election in a Sacramento courtroom by U.S. District Judge Lawrence K. Karlton, with his verdict likely to be appealed to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. Karlton had originally been set to make his ruling over the summer, but decided to wait until voters decide on Prop. 34.

Although Karlton has ruled against 208 once before—with the case returned to him by the appeals court—Miller believes a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision sets a precedent that will ultimately cause 208 to be upheld. Yet that hopeful outlook is not shared by the backers of Prop. 34.

Tom Knox, director of the pro-34 Committee for Constitutional Campaign Reform, casts Prop. 34 as the best campaign-finance reform measure that California can actually implement. To be upheld by the courts, Knox said campaign finance reform measures must not muzzle politicians.

“There are constraints on what can be done. You run into First Amendment issues and the body of court rulings out there,” Knox said. “The core issue here is the right of politicians to communicate with voters.”

Knox said he understands Miller’s desire to have tougher campaign finance reforms, but said that desire—no matter how strongly felt or asserted—doesn’t help Miller’s measure pass constitutional muster. And right now, California has no limits on fund-raising or spending.

“We respect his passion, but the fact is we need campaign finance reform now, and we disagree that Prop. 208 will be upheld,” Knox said, noting that the Supreme Court case on which Miller bases his hopes—Nixon vs. Shrink Missouri Government PAC—upheld low spending caps for a state with a fraction of California’s population. Proponents for the two political parties argue that high contribution limits are needed to pay for expensive statewide media campaigns in the country’s biggest state.

The “best measure we can get” line is echoed by many of the measure’s backers, including Senate President pro tem John Burton, the author of Senate Bill 1223, which placed the measure of the ballot.

“This is a big step toward reform. It doesn’t include every reform I’d like, and it’s not the last look we’ll take at reform, but I’ve learned you can’t kill the good waiting for the perfect,” Burton said in a prepared statement earlier this year.

Knox said Burton spent more than a year crafting the measure, consulting with lawyers and studying court-tested reforms from other states in an effort to create a campaign finance reform package that would stand up to legal challenges.

There are stark differences between propositions 34 and 208, which capped contributions for legislative office and statewide office at $250 and $500, respectively. Prop. 34 caps gubernatorial contributions at $20,000, other statewide offices at $5,000 and legislative contributions at $3,000. And the governor’s $20,000 limit wouldn’t go into effect until Nov. 6, 2002, right after Davis’ next election.

Prop. 208 also placed sharp limits on independent expenditures by interest groups and on currently unlimited “soft money” contributions to political parties, limits that would be repealed by Prop. 34.

Prop. 208’s ban on the “bundling” of contributions from union members is a major reason labor opposed that measure and is now forming the backbone of financial support for Prop. 34. Almost half of the $307,722 that the Committee for Constitutional Campaign Reform had raised as of Oct. 6 came from labor, with the other half in loans from committees controlled by senators Burton and Johnson.

Californians Against Phony Reform has raised $111,567, all of it in small, individual contributions. “We’ve gotten a lot of contributions, but it’s all pocket change,” said Miller, whose main approach has been to inundate the media with faxes and phone calls from the moment SB 1223 was introduced. “We knew that we’d have to make our case as best we can through the free media.”

The effort has paid off, with most major daily newspapers in California—including such conservative outlets as the San Diego Union-Tribune—opposing Prop. 34 on the grounds that it deceives voters.

Yet few voters make up their minds based on editorials these days. A recent Field Poll shows that most voters aren’t familiar with Prop. 34, but are inclined to support it once they learn that it sets limits on campaign contributions and expenditures.

“It’s definitely an uphill battle," Miller said as he picked up the phone to take a media call and sighed in frustration as he learned that the reporter had first tried Western Group and been told by Lonni Granlund that she had no opposition literature or contacts to send him to for a story on Prop. 34.