Vanity props

On millionaires’ jonesing for initiatives

Greg Lucas’ state-politics column Capitol Lowdown will appear every-other week in SN&R. He also blogs at

Let’s pretend that you have millions and millions of dollars, maybe even a billion or three, that’s available for unfettered use.

Buy the island next to Bowie’s, maybe. A Dalí or Picasso for over the garage workbench. Perhaps a foundation offering sanctuary for voles or job training to pols pitched into the private sector they zealously work to cripple, according to business groups, anyway.

In that enviable situation, could you look yourself in the mirror and say: “I am so jonesing for my own ballot proposition.”

Three rich Kalifornians are feeding that monkey on their back this election.

For those keeping score at home, the propositions on the November ballot are 35, 38 and 39.

The three folks laying down the most cash on these three propositions sincerely believe they are investing their largesse to enhance the greater good of us more financially challenged folk.

What else are they going to say? “Secretly, this is pure vanity because it isn’t fulfilling enough clipping my German bearer bonds and delighting in lessers genuflecting to every caprice.”

Despite the snideness of the previous two paragraphs, there’s nothing intrinsically nefarious about monied individuals putting issues before voters. Monied self-interest groups spending lavishly to create “level playing fields” that tilts down into their fanged, ever-open mouths—that’s another story.

In fact, a yes vote on these three propositions would, respectively, strengthen penalties against human trafficking, cause most taxpayers to pay a bit more to pump $10 billion into cash-starved pre- and public schools, and tighten California law for businesses headquartered elsewhere to preserve $1 billion in state-tax revenues, half for use on various green causes.

All of that resonates with nothing but the goodest of vibrations. And, in the case of Molly Munger—the daughter of Charles Munger, the business partner of Warren Buffett—there’s a very compelling flash that the almost $20 million of her own dough she’s dropped so far on Proposition 38 is strictly backing up her long-held belief that with healthier budgets schools do a better job, and the stuff that enriches kids’ lives—always first to get the ax when purse strings tighten—will be restored: sports, music, arts, libraries, excursions, electives.

As to the backers of the other measures, more might be at play.

Californians consider politicians and most elected officials to be blood-sucking swamp vermin. But they don’t like rich people buying public office. Meg Witless. “Simple” Bill Simon. Al “The Checkbook” Checchi. Michael Huffington. All wear the scarlet “L.”

To inoculate himself against voter dislike for dilettantes dabbling in the world of professional hucksters and chuckleheads, former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger backed Proposition 49 in 2002, which claimed it would spend $550 million on after-school programs. The fine print ensured this would only occur if California was so flush it could pay off its nut and that of Rhode Island, Colorado and Guam.

For others without Ahnolt’s celebrity, a ballot proposition is also a nifty way to heighten name ID for a future elective foray.

Chris Kelly, the former privacy officer for Facebook—he sure wasn’t encouraging members to be circumspect in revealing the minutiae of their lives—ran for attorney general in 2010 as a Democrat. Daphne Phung, founder of California Against Slavery, needed money for her crusade to prevent girls being drawn into prostitution. Kelly was happy to oblige, now appearing as Proposition 35’s white knight with the bulging $2 million saddlebags in nearly all coverage of the ballot measure.

Similarly, Tom Steyer, the billionaire asset manager and philanthropist, is rumored to desire public-sector employ. Was paying for a banner proclaiming “Stop Tax Dodgers! Yes on 39!” flying over the National Democratic Convention in Charlotte any indicator? Like Kelly, Steyer—to date, the $23 million man—shows up in nearly all coverage of Proposition 39 as its financial godfather and chief cheerleader.

This leads to a second query: Why would savvy, ubersuccessful business persons seek to sully themselves by rooting around in the offal of elected office? A question best answered by shrinks, not scribblers.