The daily bread of politics

If you want to know how policy is made in this town, you only have to visit the fund-raising parties where big-money interests give checks to lawmakers. If you’re a citizen, or journalist, good luck getting in.

Photo By Jill Wagner

Wednesday, June 18, would be a long day on the busy Sacramento fund-raising-party circuit.

At 7:30 a.m., some lawmakers were already asking for what has become known as “The Daily Bread,” the money that flows to legislators who throw parties for lobbyists. At that early hour, legislators were opening the doors at restaurants near the Capitol, where they would welcome flocks of lobbyists seeking influence.

An East Bay lawmaker was one of the first to get started, with a breakfast reception at the Sterling Hotel, a Victorian mansion turned luxury hotel that is one of the most popular fund-raiser locales in town.

During the course of the day, 10 of the state Legislature’s 120 members would offer breakfast, lunch, dinner and cigars at $1,000-a-head fund-raisers. In the evening, the last events would be clearing out nearly 12 hours after the first ones had begun.

Most of these parties would be low-key events at restaurants near the Capitol, but not all fund-raisers work that way. There are pricey golf outings, wine tastings and tickets to Kings games. Not to be outdone, some legislators offer more far-out ventures for donations (see sidebar): In May, Assemblyman Ron Calderon, D-Whittier, offered an overnight trip to catch the Oscar de la Hoya bout in Las Vegas for $3,200 (that’s the maximum anyone can give for one election under state campaign-finance law). In June, Calderon appealed to Christina Aguilera fans by offering to let lobbyists watch her Sacramento concert with him from an Arco Arena luxury box. That concert ticket cost $1,500. Assemblyman Jerome Horton, D-Inglewood, raised the bar to $2,000 for a “Casino Night” event. It was an apt choice for Horton, whose position as chair of the Governmental Organization Committee lets him hit up the American Indian gaming, booze and horse-racing interests under his jurisdiction.

Very little of the money comes from ordinary citizens interested in the political system. This money comes from the contributors who do business in California, and they buy access and send their lobbyists to these parties to let the lawmakers know who wants influence.

These types of fund-raising parties are an integral part of doing political business in Sacramento. But even though these events influence public policy, they take place in private. Lawmakers who host them hate to talk about hitting up the special interests that bankroll their careers. Likewise, members of the Third House, as lobbyists are collectively known, are loath to elaborate to the pesky Fourth Estate, the news media, on how they do business. Lawmakers and lobbyists are fond of saying that nothing much happens at these fund-raisers. But that leaves out the essential purpose of the activity: At some point, a big check changes hands. The actual fund-raising event, in a way, is a fun afterthought. But for lobbyists who show up, it’s a clear demonstration that their clients are willing to pay to play.

With each legislative member raising at least six figures a year, tens of millions of dollars change hands each year in Sacramento, although how much each party event generates isn’t public until contributions are reported to the state July 31.

So, with all that cash floating around town, and fun parties to go to, a reporter and photographer headed to some of these events to find out what’s so great about a fund-raiser that a company would part with $1,000 or more to let its lobbyist have eggs or cigars with a politician. Can that really be all a contribution buys? Equipped with a schedule of fund-raisers from a political newsletter, we set out to unravel the mystery.

It didn’t begin well.

At the Sterling Hotel, Assemblywoman Ellen Corbett, D-San Leandro, was the one putting on the early morning breakfast. When she arrived, she wasn’t happy to find us standing there asking to come in. She said we could buy a $1,000 ticket if we wanted to.

“I think it’s kind of rude that you showed up,” Corbett said, complaining that she wouldn’t have an opportunity to respond to this article. I offered an interview, but she refused. Corbett chairs the Assembly Judiciary Committee, which covers tort and liability issues of particular interest to the powerful lawyers’ lobby. She raised $334,504 during her last two-year term, about average for someone running a routine re-election race.

Frustrated with the media presence, Corbett ducked back into the room and closed the big wooden doors. We loitered in the lobby to see who would show up. A minute later Corbett came back out to kick us out of the building, gently grabbing my elbow. “What do you want me to do, say it 10 times?” Corbett asked, adding, “I’d like you to leave.”

The point of these fund-raisers is always implied, never laid bare. That is, nobody shows up, hands a check to a lawmaker and asks for a vote on an issue. Everyone knows that’s illegal. But what goes on behind the lace curtains at the Sterling Hotel and other haunts around town couldn’t be more obvious, no matter how much the participants deny it: Interest groups lavish cash on policymakers in exchange for access. And often, it’s not just access to the lawmaker doing the event. Members of the Legislature frequently make courtesy stops at events for their peers, so lobbyists can schmooze with several members instead of just having a couple minutes with the busy host.

At a fashion show fund-raiser for Democrats, Assembly Speaker Herb Wesson, the emcee, listens as professional fund-raiser Toni Roberts thanks the prison-guard and firefighter unions that made big donations at the event.

Photo By Larry Dalton

“It’s as clear as day to anybody, but it’s very difficult to prove,” said Doug Heller, a consumer watchdog at the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights and one of the most vocal critics of the fund-raising-party system. “It’s become so routine that it’s not even questioned. They might as well be walking in, handing them a check and saying, ‘Remember me.'”

Like any other market-based exchange, fund-raisers revolve around supply and demand: Lawmakers need money, and special interests need influence. In addition, political races cost more and more every year, and a candidate’s viability is often judged by his campaign-finance reports.

Voluntary spending caps are $956,000 for Senate races and $744,000 for Assembly races, but contested races often run more than $1 million when all the independent expenditures are added in. (In one state Senate race last year, Democrats dropped more than $4 million on a failed bid by Rusty Areias.)

That means lawmakers must start raising money almost as soon as they take office if they want to be sure to keep their seat. It’s a defensive move. Successful fund-raising is also key to making yourself a player in your party’s caucus, which leads to choice committee assignments and leadership roles.

“They all raise money, whether they have races or not,” said Alan Hoffenblum, a former Republican political consultant who tracks legislative contests around the state. Candidates who aren’t in tight races hand the money back to the parties, he said, and then parties pour the money back into contested races. Hoffenblum also publishes the nonpartisan Hot Sheet newsletter, which reported last year that Democratic officeholders gave the majority party $5.4 million to spread around before the fall elections. (Republicans did the same, but transferred just $365,000.)

The drill works like this: Most lawmakers hold two or three Sacramento money-raising parties a year, often in or around the peak months of January and February, after the Legislature reconvenes; May and June, before the cutoff date for reporting contributions; and, of course, August and September, before the all-important final deadline to approve bills.

“It used to be in the off year, you rarely had events,” said transportation lobbyist Tim Egan, who started his career under former Governor Ronald Reagan. After term limits took effect, “then you saw year-round events. We started getting invitations in January, and we see multiple events for one member.”

Members also hold events in their districts, but those are usually casual, barbecue-type things. Donors shell out $50 or $100 to mingle and eat. A sit-down dinner might be $150 or $250. A few lobbyists may show up at these events—where a $1,000 check can buy 10 tickets instead of one—but the crowd is mostly locals.

But the Sacramento fund-raisers cater primarily to the town’s 1,010 registered lobbyists, who represent 2,338 clients, according to the secretary of state’s office.

“It’s a not-very-subtle form of extortion,” said Jim Knox, executive director of California Common Cause, a group that monitors lobbying and advocates campaign-finance reform. “The object is to get as much as possible from the interests who need your vote.” Knox said the standard price of admission used to be $500 for members of the Legislature and $1,000 for legislative leaders. Now, the base price has inflated to $1,000 a ticket.

Lobbyists aren’t the ones who make the actual contribution; under the law, they can’t. Instead, lobbyists act as go-betweens when the fax machine starts spitting out fund-raiser invitations. Generally, when an invite arrives, they’ll call their client and recommend how much to give. The advice is usually based on criteria such as whether the lawmaker sits on, or chairs, a committee that regulates the client’s interest. The standard fee is one ticket, but many events also offer four tickets and some kind of recognition for the maximum contribution of $3,200. Some invitations list amusing tiers. A June 19 fund-raiser for state Board of Equalization Chairwoman Carole Migden used beverages: cabernet sauvignon, $5,000; Perrier, $3,000; zinfandel, $1,000; sarsaparilla, $500; chardonnay, $250; and Red Bull, $100.

The increasing volume of requests for money is starting to bug lobbyists. “I get probably five or six invitations a day,” said one corporate government-affairs representative who asked to remain anonymous. “This is the way it’s getting.”

June, for example, was one of the busier months, in part because the last day of the month was the end of the six-month reporting period, so members who need to show healthy fund-raising numbers are better off partying before the deadline, not after.

In June, a total of 63 events for officeholders were listed in the Capitol Morning Report, a daily newsletter for political insiders that lists fund-raisers under the header “The Daily Bread.” June events ran from the $5,000 cover charge for drinks with Senate President John Burton, D-San Francisco, and Clint Eastwood at a trendy San Francisco eatery to $500 to help Assemblyman Merv Dymally, D-Compton, pay off campaign debts from last year. There were events for freshman nobodies like Assemblyman Doug LaMalfa, R-Redding, and four-decade veteran Senator John Vasconcellos, D-San Jose, who is termed out next year. Ex-assemblymembers running for Senate, such as Democrats Elaine Alquist and Ted Lempert, held events, as did 11 wanna-be lawmakers.

Invitations to all these events are typically sent out a few weeks before the event by the handful of professional fund-raisers who work for lawmakers. Toni Roberts on the Democratic side and John Bovée on the Republican side, for example, are two of the bigger names in fund-raising.

Assemblywoman Bonnie Garcia, standing outside of her June 18 fund-raiser at Café Dolce on K Street, explains why the event absolutely, positively must take place in private, away from the prying eyes of reporters.

Photo By Jill Wagner

After the invitations go out, the lawmaker sets aside a block of time to walk over to his or her fund-raiser’s office and make phone solicitations. Lawmakers will do this a few times in the weeks and days before an event, working from a list of lobbyists and political action committees (PACs) who are known donors. It means spending hours at a time giving the same pitch over and over: Love to see you there. Hope I can count on your support, etc. Some members, of course, earn a reputation for pitching harder than others.

Lobbyists on the other end of the line fall into two categories: employees of the organization they represent or employees of lobbying firms. Though a lobbyist can recommend that his or her client or company cut a check and send him or her to the event, it’s technically not the lobbyist’s decision.

When the time comes for lobbyists to set out for fund-raising events, they can hit one event or several in one day. On busy days, there are often several events scheduled at the same time, and some lobbyists must trot from one to the other. On June 18, four of the 10 fund-raisers scheduled that day were at 5:30 p.m.

After angering Corbett, we moved on—and got the cold shoulder at the next event, for Assemblywoman Patty Berg, D-Eureka. The fund-raising staffer sitting by the door at Virga’s Club Americain said there was no way we could come in and watch lobbyists chow down with the freshman Democrat at a price of $1,000. We went out to the front of the building to look in the window. As Berg mingled with guests, a woman came up to the buffet and took two pancakes. That’s presumably $500 a pancake.

Next, we headed to a breakfast reception for freshman Assemblywoman Bonnie Garcia, R-El Centro, at Café Dolce on K Street. Again, we were stopped at the door. Garcia stood inside talking to Catherine Borg, a lobbyist for a mobile-home-park owners association trying to block new regulations pending this year in the Legislature. (We spotted Borg at several events during the course of the day.)

Garcia marched over to us.

“This is a private event,” she said, using the same “Not unless you guys want to pay the $1,000” joke as Corbett. She said we had no right to observe a legislator money-grubbing. “It’s not the public’s business if it’s a private party. If I had a birthday party for my son, would you be there? I don’t think so.”

As lobbyists whose clients had shelled out money for them to influence state business milled around inside, Garcia explained that it’s against the law to combine state business with campaigns. She added that it costs a lot of money to get re-elected, and she urged me to check out all of her finances when totals for the first half of this year become public on July 31. That’s where the press should look, she continued, not at private events like the one going on behind her. She also used the same excuse we heard from other members: that she wanted to protect the privacy of the lobbyists inside who were trying to influence elected officials.

We crossed the street to Esquire Grill, where the event for Assemblyman Kevin McCarthy, R-Bakersfield, was packed with more than two dozen folks eating fruit and quiche. There’s a reason McCarthy was a bigger draw: He’s being talked about as the next Assembly minority leader. The event was in a small room at the rear of the empty eatery, where McCarthy shook hands with arriving donors, and no, we weren’t allowed in.

At noon, we headed to a lunch event at Virga’s for Joe Canciamilla, D-Pittsburg. He said we weren’t welcome unless—here it was again—we padded his pocket with a $1,000 check. I politely declined. But, standing outside, he did offer a glib explanation of fund-raisers.

“We all do them because it’s what’s expected, and it’s what we have to do to raise money. And the lobbyists go because it’s what’s expected to represent their clients,” he said, adding that fund-raisers are a hassle and that lawmakers he knows don’t enjoy them.

Canciamilla, a moderate Democrat who will seek a third term next year, said it’s even more important now for him to raise funds. He’s actively been working to compromise with Republicans on the budget, he said, so he faces more of a potential threat from within his own party. “You defend yourself by raising money.”

Does all that money pouring in buy access? Canciamilla chuckled when I asked if he remembers who bankrolls his political career by attending his events.

“You really want me to answer that on the record? If I say yes, then, let’s see, it’s granting a favor. If I say no, it’s insulting the people who are there. Does it ever cross my mind, ‘Oh, this person was at my event’? No. Do I remember? I remember the people that are there, but I may not always know who they’re representing.” In any case, he added, it’s hard to remember who represents whom—and it’s hard to track because his fund-raiser collects the checks and sends them to his treasurer.

When evening rolled around, the big event was at Sandra Dee’s Bar-B-Que & Seafood. Assembly Speaker Herb Wesson, D-Culver City, was hosting an event for Assemblywoman Nicole Parra, D-Hanford, a freshman who barely won last fall, even with $1 million from the party. As one of the most vulnerable lawmakers, Parra needs to raise a lot of dough for next year’s contest, so it’s no surprise that Wesson agreed to put in an appearance.

Brian Hatch, right, a lobbyist for the California Professional Firefighters, chats up Assemblyman Leland Yee at a fund-raiser.

Photo By Larry Dalton

Our appearance, however, wasn’t welcomed. Parra’s staff asked us to leave. I went back later that night to catch Parra as she was leaving and ask why we’d been kept out. Incredibly, though I’d asked to enter and had been refused, she told me that I hadn’t wanted to be there. “I let reporters come in to a lot of my events,” she said. “If this is one you chose not to, then that’s your decision.”

We headed to an event for freshman Assemblyman Rick Keene, R-Chico, at the California Restaurant Association office on 10th Street, and walked in behind lobbyists from the California Cable & Telecommunications Association (CCTA) and the California Motor Car Dealers Association. Keene’s event featured “World Famous Beers of the Sierra Nevada Brewing Company,” from his hometown. When we stepped up to the check-in table, which was covered with bottles of Summerfest lager, Keene’s fund-raiser, Bovée, instructed us to wait outside. Clearly angered, he said Keene might step out to talk to us. Five minutes later, Keene’s chief of staff emerged to testily inform us, “There won’t be any comments today. OK?”

Getting turned away like this from event after event seems to say a lot about how lawmakers feel about what they’re doing, as if they believe that raising money really is a shameful act, in spite of its necessity. One reason for their reticence may be that it’s tempting for an observer to draw connections between legislators and their check-bearing guests.

Assemblywoman Pat Wiggins, D-Santa Rosa, for example, had us tossed from her late-June event at the Sterling Hotel. On the way out, we passed lobbyist Aaron Read, who said he was there on behalf of one of his biggest clients: the union that represents state firefighters with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CDF). Read is one of the capital’s top lobbyists, and the CDF Firefighters union is one of his biggest clients. The union would be the beneficiary of Wiggins’ Assembly Bill 899, which would give firefighters the right to binding arbitration. Sending their man Read to the Wiggins event was presumably a way to give something back to their advocate. (The bill passed the Assembly and is awaiting action in a Senate committee.)

How much justification is there for a reporter to attend a fund-raiser? The events are an important part of lawmaking, and they’re purely business despite any claims that they’re just social gatherings.

Knox of Common Cause said reporters may not have an inalienable right to attend any fund-raiser they want to, but that doesn’t mean the activity shouldn’t be covered aggressively. “There’s not much media attention paid to it,” he said. “It’s just so much a part of the culture in Sacramento. Few people really give it much thought, but out in the districts, the average voter would be surprised at the frequency of these $1,000-a-plate fund-raisers that cater almost exclusively to the special interests that have business before the Legislature.”

Money taken at fund-raisers is eventually disclosed, but those reports don’t tell the whole story. It’s understandable that most lawmakers don’t want any more scrutiny of their fund-raising activities than they’re required to allow.

At the end of the day, after getting the do-not-enter sign at every event we hit, one member cheerfully invited us in: Assemblyman John Longville, D-San Bernadino.

“I don’t have anything to hide,” he said, wondering why other members wouldn’t welcome us in.

Unfortunately, there wasn’t really anyone there. Longville had moved the event to avoid crossing picket lines, and it ended up in a 12th Street sports bar at happy hour. A couple assemblymembers were there, as were some non-paying activists and one lobbyist. There was no gatekeeper—just a table covered with cheese cubes and chicken kebobs.

I asked that lone lobbyist, who didn’t want to be named, how the routine works when he goes to fund-raisers. He said lobbyists really don’t go to them to press lawmakers on issues. “First of all, you’d be screwed if you had that expectation,” he said. “You’d be a terrible lobbyist because any legislator you approach with that mindset is going to tell you to go to hell.”

Years ago, one retired lobbyist recalled, many fund-raisers weren’t in Sacramento. They were in the lawmaker’s district, and the price of admission was more like $25. “I’d go to the event and buy extra tickets” that would be given out to the politician’s friends, he said. But even though making a direct connection between a contribution and a vote was illegal then, as it is now, that didn’t mean rules weren’t bent—or broken. “One legislator told me he needed X amount for the Democrats in order to get a bill out of committee.”

The most important part of lobbying, he added, is to be recognized as a player. “You need to be perceived as part of a process. What you get depends on how much of a relationship you have.” When the time comes that you need to have a sit-down with a lawmaker, having that status can make the difference between meeting with the member or just talking to some staff member.

“Events aren’t about having a chance to talk hard policy,” said Heller, the consumer activist. “It’s a chance to be friendly and put a face with that donation.”

Another lobbyist, who also asked not to be named, said being recognized is part of the payoff of attending fund-raisers. “The biggest benefit is attaching a face to an organization. With term limits, it’s important to get to know the members.” That’s a change from the way it used to be in some offices, when the lawmaker’s receptionist knew who gave donations and who didn’t. “In the old days, there was a list in the desk,” he said, and if you weren’t on it, you didn’t get in.

Assemblywoman and model Ellen Corbett was all smiles at the fashion show fund-raiser held July 9.

Photo By Larry Dalton

Today, it seems, access lists like that still exist, but they’re unwritten and unspoken.

Darry Sragow, who is retained by the California Democratic Party as the chief campaign strategist for Assembly campaigns, said he’s never encountered a lawmaker who blurted out that something had to be done for someone because he or she had given money.

“But,” he added, “if staff gives an officeholder 15 phone messages, and they have time to make five calls, they’re going to sort them by some priority. And the priority is ‘Who do I know? Who’s part of my support base?’”

That’s an important consideration in the lobbying business, where getting access is one of the most important objectives. And, Sragow said, donations guarantee access. “If you contribute money to an event that that candidate or officeholder is at, by definition, you’re going to meet them.” Sragow, also a political-science lecturer at the University of California, Berkeley, points to Proposition 34, a 2000 ballot initiative approved by voters that sets contribution limits and voluntary spending caps. That reform, he said, is a reason that working the fund-raiser circuit is, ironically, becoming more important to politicos, not less important.

Candidates must use expensive tools like television and direct mail to get their message out to huge districts. With more than 425,000 people in each of the state’s 80 Assembly districts and more than 850,000 in 40 Senate districts, California lawmakers represent areas as populous as some U.S. states. And when that’s coupled with contribution limits, Sragow said, it means lawmakers must spend more time romancing people who write big checks. “In the name of campaign-finance reform, we have said to candidates, ‘You have to raise an obscene amount of money, and you have to divide that into very small chunks.’”

Now that competitive races can run $1 million or more, Sragow added, “The rule is: If you don’t have enough money, you lose.”

Sragow said he couldn’t give a specific example of how a contribution influenced a public-policy decision, but he cited financial-privacy legislation as a symptom. A bill by Senator Jackie Speier, D-San Mateo, to bar companies from selling information about customers died for the third time this year. Polling shows that voters want privacy, Sragow said, but the bill failed “because people who own that information have access to decision makers and can make their argument, even if there are fewer bankers than voters.”

As part of his job as speaker, Wesson lends himself to all kinds of fund-raising parties, but one of his more colorful roles this year was as emcee of the Legislative Fashion Show at Virga’s Courtyard. When the July 9 event got under way, Wesson bounded up onto a small stage to cheers. There were a handful of lobbyists mingling with legislators in the crowd of about 100 before the show started. The money rounded up that day would go to the Sacramento Women’s Campaign Fund, a PAC for Democratic candidates.

While the lawmaking models prepared backstage, Assemblyman Leland Yee, D-San Francisco, stood by the bar chatting with CCTA lobbyist Gil Martinez. CCTA lobbyists have been hitting a lot of fund-raisers these days. At the same time, they’re lobbying lawmakers to start taxing their rivals in the satellite-TV business (cable is taxed, but satellite isn’t). A minute later, Yee was having a few laughs with Brian Hatch, a big-name lobbyist who had just migrated over from another fund-raiser for Assemblyman George Plescia, R-San Diego, at the Esquire Grill. Hatch, sipping a glass of red wine, was at both events on behalf of his biggest client, the California Professional Firefighters. Hatch didn’t want to discuss what issues he’s been lobbying on behalf of.

After Wesson introduced himself, he handed the microphone to Toni Roberts, the fund-raiser who arranges the annual event. Roberts announced the major sponsors who wrote the biggest checks. She started with the event’s biggest backers: the firefighters union that sent Hatch. Next, she thanked Don Novey, the former California Correctional Peace Officers Association (CCPOA) president. By lavishing millions on policymakers, Novey turned the prison-guards union into one of the most potent forces in Sacramento. Lawmakers, in turn, approved a whopping 37-percent raise for the guards last year, in spite of their budget problems. Governor Gray Davis, another CCPOA beneficiary, signed the raise into law.

Novey stood off to the left of the runway, wearing his trademark fedora. He was there with his wife, Carol, on behalf of the guards.

When the show began, Wesson read detailed descriptions of the garb each woman wore. One by one, assemblywomen came out in fancy outfits, grabbed the elbow of the assemblyman waiting to escort them, strode down a makeshift runway and then hopped up on the stage next to Wesson.

Parra, who had tried to convince us that we chose not to attend her event, was one of the first to emerge, turning heads in a white cotton-and-spandex suit by Louben. She walked the runway with Calderon (the Aguilera fan) on her arm and then ascended the stage, where she removed her jacket and twirled around in the camisole. The audience cheered.

“Help me, Father,” Wesson said, fanning himself with a card. “Help me, help me, help me.”

The speaker of the Assembly then stepped down to escort Berg, whose pancake event we’d watched from the outside. She emerged to the blasting Mötley Crüe hit “Girls, Girls, Girls,” took Wesson’s arm and paraded around in dark sunglasses and a black leather shirt-and-pants combo by Nicola Berti.

Corbett, who had us kicked us out of the Sterling Hotel, came out in a beaded stretch-cotton and Lycra skirt by Ario and three-quarter-sleeve U-neck T-shirt by Carilyn Vaile (with jewelry and accessories by Robin Lyle). Escorted by Assemblyman Alan Lowenthal, D-Long Beach, Corbett walked to the end of the runway, twirled and then walked up on the small stage to strike a graceful pose, beaming. Wesson fanned himself again.

Pantsuit after gown after pantsuit, the vamping continued until Wesson read the last card. But there was one unscheduled model waiting for her turn on the catwalk: a red-haired woman dressed casually in a red-and-white-striped shirt and blue jeans.

“And now,” Wesson announced, “representing Americana at its finest, Carol Novey, being escorted by sweet Lou Correa!”

With that, the Democratic Assemblyman and the powerful union leader’s wife strode around the room, arm in arm, to cheers and applause.