In the news

The San Francisco Chronicle
Marisa Lagos

California's state legislators collect the vast majority of their campaign contributions from organizations and individuals outside the districts they represent, according to a study by the nonprofit organization

The study, released today, analyzed the nearly $100 million in campaign cash raised for successful Assembly and Senate runs between Jan. 1, 2007 and March 17, 2010. It found that about 79 percent of those campaign contributions came from outside legislators' districts, while about 12 percent were donated from lawmakers' home turf. The geographic source of about 9 percent of contributions could not be determined.

Critics say the numbers prove that California politics are being increasingly influenced by monied special interests, while average voters take a backseat. Others argue that the financing pattern is a legacy of term limits because lawmakers can rise in importance not through seniority but by showing they can raise vast sums of cash for other politicians.

Nearly one-quarter of the $100 million came from a single Sacramento ZIP code where many lobbyists for business groups and labor organizations have headquarters. The numbers are similar to what found when it studied congressional campaign contributions, said executive director Daniel Newman.

"The question is, who really controls the legislators? Clearly it's the contributors as well as the voters," he said. "While there are occasional fundraising scandals blamed on a few bad apples, this shows it's actually an entire rotten barrel. Legislators have to raise so much money that they are depending on anybody but the voters."

Topping the list of lawmakers who received the largest percentage of campaign contributions from outside their districts were Democratic Assemblyman Charles Calderon, a longtime politician who represents Whittier (Los Angeles County), and Assemblyman Martin Block, a Democrat who won a tough race for a San Diego seat in 2008. Both men received nearly 95 percent of their campaign contributions from outside their districts.

Ma raises most

But San Francisco's Fiona Ma, who was elected in 2006 and quickly rose to power within the Democratic Caucus, took the top spot when it came to sheer cash collected out of district: $1.68 million. Ma, now speaker pro tempore, raised more campaign cash from outside her district than either of the leaders of both houses. Her outside contributions made up 88 percent of the money she raised, placing her 29th in funds raised outside the district. Ma attributed the prolific fundraising to her involvement in statewide issues, such as high-speed rail, agriculture and domestic violence, that take her on the road. She said that as a member of the Assembly's Democratic leadership - and someone from a safe Democratic district - she funnels a lot of money to other candidates. But she said the interests of her San Francisco constituents are well served because her high profile helps her promote those interests.

"I am home all the time, and I am very in touch with my district," she said.

Longtime Democratic political strategist Steven Maviglio said it is not surprising that Ma - as well as other party leaders, including former Speaker Karen Bass, D-Baldwin Vista (Los Angles County), former Republican Assembly Leader Mike Vilines, R-Clovis (Fresno County), Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, and Speaker John Pérez, D-Los Angeles - raised the most money from outside their districts.

Road to higher office

He said many ambitious fundraisers are rewarded with leadership positions and use those positions and money to build a foundation to a run for higher office.

"It's standard political practice to raise as much money as you can and try to build your own clout by giving it away to colleagues. ... Almost a requirement of being in (Democratic) leadership is to raise money for the caucus, to help maintain and build party majority," he said. "Giving and getting money has become a cottage industry. It's not the old days of spaghetti suppers and ice cream socials."

Newman, however, said the need to raise more campaign cash, even in a safe district where there's little or no competition, "increases legislators' dependence on contributions and makes them less responsive to voters."

Good-government groups agree, and they argue that the data show the need for publicly financed campaigns. They are pushing for passage of Proposition 15 in June, a pilot public financing program that would assess fees on registered lobbyists to pay for secretary of state campaigns.

"When they take contributions from outside their district, it's another way to make constituents one rung lower on the list," said Emily Pears, a policy advocate for California Common Cause.

Pears said another troubling trend is the fact that big contributors, such as labor and business interests, tend to write checks to anyone who is elected to office, regardless of party affiliation or stance on issues. For example, Calderon's top 10 contributors during the three-year time period include public employee unions, Indian tribes and businesses that are often on opposing sides of policy issues.

"It says that the industry is hedging its bets with these contributions - both sides know what it takes to get influence, regardless of whether the legislator was sympathetic to their interests to begin with," Pears said. "They are buying influence."

Not that simple

Calderon, who was an assemblyman in the early 1980s and a state senator from 1990 to 1998 before being elected again four years ago, said it's not that simple.

"The evil is not in money. The weakness is not in money. It's in the individual and the kind of character they have," he said. "I have found the only way I can be is consistent in how I approach the issues, and that means I vote against contributors all the time."

Calderon said he found it more difficult to raise money in his district, a low- and middle-income swath of east Los Angeles, this time around than it was a decade ago, before term limits. He advocates public financing.

"What really irritates me is that people in California have not supported public financing," he said. "Campaigns are not free ... you have to reach voters or you don't get elected. Then to have people turn around and criticize you for raising money - let's have it one way or the other."

Pedro Morillas of consumer advocacy group CalPIRG said money opens doors but doesn't guarantee a legislator's support - just their ear. Voters can ensure they are heard by staying active and engaged and voicing their opinion on key issues, he said.

"Every politician has $1,000-a-plate fundraisers," he said. "And a group like CalPIRG just can't afford to spend $1,000 to get me into that room, whereas everyone from AT&T to SEIU (the largest public employees union) are able to. ... It's about access and relationship building and the benefits of sitting down with a representative."

Top 10 Fiona Ma contributors

Assemblywoman Fiona Ma, D-San Francisco, collected the most money - $1.68 million - from outside her district of any legislator during the three years studied. Her top contributors:

California Medical Association
California State Council of Laborers
Peace Officers Research Association of California
California State Pipe Trades Council
California Teachers Association
California State Council of Service Employees
Operating Engineers Local 3
California Association of Realtors
Pechanga Band of Luiseno Mission Indians

Top 10 Charles Calderon contributors

In a tie for the top spot, Assemblyman Charles Calderon, D-Whittier, received the largest percentage of contributions from outside his district - 94.6 percent. His top contributors:

Southern California Pipe Trades District Council 16
California State Council of Laborers
California State Pipe Trades Council
California Association of Realtors
California State Council of Service Employees
Pechanga Band of Luiseno Mission Indians
Eli Lilly & Co
Youngs Market Co
Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway
General Electric

To see the data, go to

To see the entire study, visit

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