Cavala: Campaign “Reform” Claims Another Victim

Posted on 19 October 2009

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By Bill Cavala
A veteran of over 30 years in Sacramento

Bowing to realities, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell announced his withdrawal from the contest for Governor of California.  The reason was money.  

Under the rules in play through the election of Gray Davis, large contributors could supply the cash needed to run a political campaign to 20,000,000 voters.  Now, with a system of contribution limitations in place, no one can run a serious campaign who is not already famous (viz Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jerry Brown) or incredibly rich

(Poizner and Whitman).

Was it the intent of the voters to place such limits on their choices for top leadership?  I doubt it.  The electorate was attempting – as it always does – to limit the influence of big moneyed interests in the process of government.  They succeeded only in reducing the total amounts contributed, not the proportions.  “Special interests” still contribute disproportionate amounts to candidates for office.  But the ability to put the millions behind a favored candidate in a primary election – something the education coalition might have done for O’Connell in a different time – is no more.

O’Connell won his first campaign (for State Assembly) in 1982.  His opponent was Brooks Firestone, the heir to the Firestone tire and rubber fortune.  With four months before the election, Firestone had already outspent O’Connell 600,000 to 8,000.  But the rules of the period allowed the Speaker, Willie Brown, to transfer large sums to candidate’s like O’Connell.  He was still outspent by hundreds of thousands, but he had enough wherewithal to make his case – and won.

Under the old, much maligned system of unregulated contributions, no candidate for partisan office in a competitive district ever lost because of money.

Today, candidates don’t even try – because of money.

Until the turn of the 20th century, U.S. Senators were chosen by Members of a state’s Legislature and not popular vote.  Those selected were typically millionaires who had made large contributions to the Legislators making the decision.  The Constitutional Amendment that made Senators popularly elected was a ‘progressive’ move prompted by a concern the Senate had become a club of millionaires, ensconcing a social class in our ostensibly ‘democratic’ republic.

Today, restrictions on contributions combine with higher voter populations and concomitant increases in campaign costs to produce the same result.  Someday very soon America will be governed by the ‘rich and famous’ – regardless of party.

Jack O’Connell served in public office for 28 years with great distinction, authoring landmark legislation in education reform.  He was renowned in his district for his accessibility, walking door-to-door – not just at election time, but all the time.  He set up card-tables at busy street corners each Saturday and held “office hours” – so often that it became a hallmark.   He may have never been able to win the Democratic nomination for Governor or to successfully compete with the GOP nominee.  Then again, he might well have.

Now, we’ll never know.

Bill Cavala was Deputy Director of the Assembly Speaker’s Office of Member Services where he worked for over 30 years. He attended undergraduate and graduate school in the 1960’s and received a doctorate in political science at UC Berkeley. He taught political science at UC Berkeley during the 1970's while he worked part-time for the State Assembly.

Cavala left teaching at UC Berkeley for Assembly Speaker Willie Brown in 1981 until his tenure as Speaker ended in 1995, and he has worked for his five successors as Speaker. He now manages election campaigns for Democratic candidates.