August 21, 2013

Fundraisers abound as California legislative session nears end

Fans of nibbling shrimp, sipping wine and mingling with the powerful are in luck right now – if they've got at least $1,000 to drop.

Fans of nibbling shrimp, sipping wine and mingling with the powerful are in luck right now – if they've got at least $1,000 to drop.

That's what it costs to get into most of the campaign fundraisers that are taking place in Sacramento over the next three weeks, as about 80 politicians and political hopefuls descend on the bars and restaurants around the Capitol.

Over breakfast receptions, luncheons and cocktail parties, lawmakers will schmooze with lobbyists and other interest group representatives in a push to raise campaign cash before the legislative session ends next month. The fundraising frenzy comes at a key time, as lawmakers prepare to cast their final votes on hundreds of bills still pending in the Legislature.

Lawmakers have a long tradition of tapping the wealth of Sacramento interest groups as the session winds to a close. This year, however, the practice is garnering an extra dose of criticism.

"The quid pro quo at a legislative fundraiser is not explicit, but it's implied in exactly the same way as when one of the Sopranos shows up at your grocery store and tells you what a shame it would be if something happened to your business or your family," said Dan Schnur, the director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California.

"Fundraising is a necessary part of politics. Legislating is a critical part of government. They just shouldn't be able to happen at the same time," he said.

Schnur, who has worked for several GOP politicians, is pushing a proposal to ban fundraising during the legislative session. He said he's had "very good meetings" with legislative leaders about putting the proposal in a bill, but doesn't think it's likely to happen. He's pursuing a possible ballot initiative.

Critics say Schnur's proposal handicaps incumbents by limiting when they can raise money, while allowing their challengers to fundraise year-round. They also say his idea reflects a cynical, overly simplistic view of politics.

"If the optics are that money influences votes, then (ban) it all year long, not just a couple weeks per year," said Democratic political consultant Steve Maviglio.

Maviglio said that public financing of political campaigns would be a better way to go, an idea Schnur rejects.

In the meantime, fundraising events abound, providing a boost of business to capital city establishments and the opportunity for moneyed interests to score face time with lawmakers. Today alone, at least 13 political fundraisers are scheduled around Sacramento, including receptions at the K Bar sports bar, Mayahuel tequila bar and Esquire Grill.

Supporters of state Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, can watch him perform magic tricks at the Mix nightclub tonight, while donors who give $2,500 to state Sen. Rod Wright, D-Inglewood, can enjoy a "five-course meal and wine pairing prepared by 'Chef Rod' himself" at a private home, the invitation says.

Assemblyman Mike Gatto, D-Los Angeles, will raise campaign funds at a cafe across the street from the Capitol in the afternoon, after chairing the powerful Appropriations Committee in the morning.

He said raising money to support a campaign is part of holding office. But taking money from an interest group doesn't mean a lawmaker will always vote their way, Gatto said.

"There are warring sides on just about every issue in the Capitol," he said. "More often than not we end up disappointing one of the warring sides. Those decisions are made based on policy and nothing else."

The timing of Gatto's fundraiser is the kind of thing Schnur seeks to ban. But the groups that pay for representatives to attend today's fundraiser have wide latitude on when they send in their donation.

On Tuesday afternoon, lobbyists dropped into a private dining room inside the Chop's steakhouse across the street from the Capitol for a fundraiser benefitting Assemblyman Steven Bradford, D-Gardena.

"I used to think I had to go to all of them. Now I go to a very chosen few," said veteran lobbyist Paula Treat, who represents two Indian tribes, an energy company and a cigar store association.

State law forbids lobbyists and lawmakers from mixing policy talk and campaign cash. So attending fundraisers is not about getting a vote, Treat said. It's just one of many ways to build relationships.

"Whenever you see someone and can say, 'How's the family?' it shows that you're interested in more than one bill," she said.

Dan Weitzman, a professional fundraiser who organized Bradford's event, said the end of session is busy because lawmakers and lobbyists are all in Sacramento.

"It's a captured universe," he said.

But for politicians, raising money shouldn't just be a once-a-year push, Weitzman said. He said he advises clients to do two or three events in Sacramento each year, as well as a dozen in their home district.

"I don't believe you can only fundraise in certain months," Weitzman said. "It's like a muscle, you've got to exercise it."

Call Laurel Rosenhall, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 321-1083. Follow her on Twitter @laurelrosenhall.

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