A power struggle in Sacramento is testing the limits of campaign finance law

LOS ANGELES, CA - OCTOBER 23: Candidate Rick Chavez Zbur (left) interacts with Rep. Robert Rivas (left) during a political event for Zbur's candidacy for Assembly Speaker in Beverly Hills on Sunday, October 23, 2022 in Los Angeles, California.  (Dania Maxwell/Los Angeles Times)

Assembly candidate Rick Chavez Zbur (left) interacts with Rep. Roberto Rivas (right) during a campaign rally in Beverly Hills on October 23. (Dania Maxwell/Los Angeles Times)

Twenty-two years ago, as frustration over the influx of money boiled over in California politics, powerful state legislators convinced voters to pass major campaign finance reform. It limited the amount donors can give to individual candidates while making political parties the conduits of big money to state campaigns.

The idea was that California’s Democratic and Republican parties would work with legislative leaders to decide which candidates they would favor — and then pour in dollars to help them win. And it’s more or less worked that way ever since.

But now, fueled by simmering discontent in Sacramento, a new generation of lawmakers is testing the law’s limits by bypassing their party and raising their own campaign donations to spur a change in Assembly leadership — one of California’s most powerful positions. policy.

Assembly members are split on whether it’s time to replace Speaker Anthony Rendon, a Los Angeles County Democrat who has held the post since 2016 — longer than anyone since the 1990s. Fellow Democrat Robert Rivas of rural San Benito County is seeking his seat. Rendon beat off a challenge from Rivas embarrassing stalemate this spring, but retaliation is looming. Two days after the Nov. 8 election, members of the Democratic Convention will gather in Sacramento to vote for a leader.

The tension is more about management style and personality than policy or politics. Both Rivas and Rendon have support from a mix of moderates and progressives, and strong voting records for bills backed by unions and environmentalists.

Rendon’s leadership has been unusually aloof, deferring important decisions to committee chairs and refusing to put his name on legislation. The lack of direction has created chaos that angers some lawmakers. Rivas says his style would be more proactive. And with office limits allowing him to serve up to eight years (while Rendon is forced to retire in 2024), Rivas is positioning himself as a forward-looking leader.

At stake is the power to shape what becomes law in California and how the state spends about $300 billion a year. Oratorical battles are usually secret, but this one is taking place in public. Each man has consultants and PR professionals and a political operation to help elect Democrats to the Assembly.

This is where an unusual campaign finance maneuver comes into play. Rivas and 18 other assembly members put nearly $900,000 into a political action committee to elect people they hope will support Rivas for speaker. This “Democratic Leadership Coalition PAC” is buying mail ads in support of 15 Assembly candidates, and Rivas has been traveling the state to come for them.

Usually, that job belongs to the current speaker, who works with money from the California Democratic Party, some of which is donated by members of the Democratic Assembly. But lawmakers supporting Rivas worried that Rendon would use the money they give to the party to influence candidates to support him in the speaker race.

Rendon’s supporters see the PAC as evidence that Rivas is trying to buy votes. They point to the fact that the new PAC spends most of its money helping candidates in seats Democrats are certain to win, and much less supporting Democrats in swing districts.

And they doubt that Rivas is connected to a network of wealthy donors, the so-called Rule for California, which is largely made up of Bay Area venture capitalists and philanthropists and is led by a former adviser to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Although its mission is to counter the influence of public employee unions in Sacramento, the network contributes to lawmakers across the ideological spectrum — including pro-labor progressives. It has he donated heavily to Rivashe hired his brother Rick Rivas as a political consultant and donated to Rivas’ supporters in the speaker’s race.

Bill Wong, a Democratic political consultant and longtime Rendon ally, said the flow of money from “Govern for California” donors to Rivas’ supporters “puts our politics up for sale.”

But is politics no longer for sale? Many billionaires also contribute to the California Democratic Party, as do unions and corporations that lobby lawmakers to pick the next speaker. The party is spending six times more on Assembly races than the PAC made with Rivas. And the biggest money of all in the assemblies is independent spending financed by special interests that don’t go directly to candidates, which at $44 million far exceeds spending by the Democratic Party and the Rivas-affiliated PAC combined.

Rendon said in a statement that raising money through the Democratic Party is the best way to help candidates because delegates at the annual convention vote on who should get the party’s full endorsement.

A provision of the campaign finance reform law that voters approved in 2000 says that candidates cannot donate money to committees that make independent expenditures to support or oppose other candidates. But a California Superior Court judge ruled in 2014 that the provision was unconstitutional because the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision gave groups broad rights to spend unlimited amounts on independent expenditures.

California’s political watchdog, the Fair Political Practices Commission, says the law still stands because it hasn’t been overturned by the Legislature or overturned by an appeals court.

I asked Jessica Levinson, a professor at Loyola Law School with expertise in campaign finance law, what she thought about the whole mess. A generation ago, she said, there was more optimism that campaign spending could be curbed by new laws, but “now it’s just a free-for-all when it comes to money in politics.”

Although it is strange to see today’s lawmakers breaking the rules their predecessors promoted “sensible campaign finance reform,” It seems reasonable that lawmakers who have lost faith in their leader should be able to set up their own campaign spending channel. The bigger question is how the divided congregation will recover from such a profound loss of confidence in his leadership.

This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.

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