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June 5, 2023

It is time to fix California’s political donation shell game

If it weren’t obvious before, what transpired in California’s
Central Valley during the last two weeks of the fall campaign
season would baldly expose the crying need for real reform of this
state’s political donations.
If it weren’t obvious before, what transpired in California’s Central Valley during the last two weeks of the fall campaign season would baldly expose the crying need for real reform of this state’s political donations.

Yes, so-called reform was passed as Proposition 34 in 2000, limiting individual donations to candidates and political committees. But all it did was create a shell game that one Republican donor who also happens to own a string of television and radio stations tried to manipulate in an unprecedented manner.

Here are the rules under which Harry J. Pappas, the media owner, worked this fall: He could give candidates he liked all the free air time he wished on his stations, but the federal Fairness Doctrine would have required him to give the same amount of time to their opponents. He could give only $26,600 worth of time to any one political party committee.

But Pappas wanted to provide his favorites, all Republicans, with what amounted to $300,000 worth of air time on his stations – mostly Fox TV network affiliates, mostly based in Central Valley locations from Sacramento to Bakersfield, also seen and heard in non-Valley locations from San Jose to San Diego.

The Fairness Doctrine meant he could not simply give away the time without providing just as much to the Democratic candidates he hoped to defeat. Enter the shell game.

Pappas did not give the time to candidates. Rather, he gave it to Republican Party county central committees. He gave $25,000 each worth of free time to central committees in Sacramento, San Joaquin, Kings, Madera, Merced, Tulare, Santa Clara, Fresno, San Diego, Imperial, San Bernardino and Riverside counties – a total donation of $300,000 if the county committees had been able to use it all.

Under state law, it was then up to them and not Pappas to decide which candidates received the air time. Wink, wink. By odd coincidence, much of the time was earmarked for Republican legislative candidates Gary Podesto and Dean Gardner, both running against Democratic incumbents in tight Central Valley races.

Even though all this occurred less than one week before Election Day, Democrats challenged its legality, causing federal authorities to order equal time for Democrats – but the order came just three days before the vote. The eventual result: Republicans didn’t get much of the free air time Pappas wanted to give them, and Democrats barely got any.

When the Pappas manipulations first became known, some analysts speculated they would accelerate the already rampant and well-documented public distrust of mass media, while also increasing public skepticism of expansion and merger efforts by large media companies.

Some even related all this to the flap over the 62-station Sinclair Broadcasting special program on the background of presidential candidate John Kerry, lambasted by Kerry’s fellow Democrats as an illegitimate use of publicly-owned airwaves.

Most important, though, was what it says about the state of campaign finance regulation in California.

The fact that Pappas could legally donate as much as $26,600 to each of 12 party committees, with no recognition that all are essentially part of one organization, proved a point that critics of Proposition 34 made from the beginning:

The law is a sham, designed by politicians to allow them to continue taking virtually unlimited donations while appearing to limit their take.

It also makes unelected party chairmen among the most powerful figures in California politics, as they are the ones who decide how the big money coming in to their various committees with be used. Sure, some contributors – like Pappas – may earmark their funds for specific races, but most allow great discretion for party chairs to decide which contests to target.

It’s essentially a return to bossism. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said early this fall that political reform will top his agenda for the next year or so.

If he means that even in a minor way, fixing Proposition 34 – whether by ballot initiative or legislative action – should be among his first targets.

Staff Report
A staff member edited this provided article.

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