Prop. 34: Deception In Reformers' Clothing
By Arianna Huffington
October 26, 2000
"You may be under the impression that Proposition 34 is campaign finance reform. It's not. It's disguised as campaign finance reform."
These are the opening lines of a new TV commercial that begins airing in California this Friday. Nothing particularly newsworthy there -- you can barely turn around these days in California without being bombarded with pleas to "Vote Yes on This" or "No on That."
What distinguishes this political ad from the dozens crowding our airwaves is the all-star and odd-ball pairing on the screen: Sen. John McCain, the most prominent voice for reform within the political system, and Warren Beatty, the most prominent voice for reform that has ever won an Oscar.
Prop. 34 is "written by people already in office to benefit people already in office," Beatty says in the commercial. To which McCain adds: "And what it actually does is wipe out real reform -- Proposition 208 -- which was passed overwhelmingly by the voters."
This unexpected alliance across the ideological spectrum was initiated by Beatty, who asked the senator to join him in defeating this hoax. Indeed, the blatant manipulation of the initiative process was so effective that even McCain was at first bamboozled into endorsing the measure -- until he realized that it would undermine the far more stringent reforms already approved by Californians.
It's the most dangerous kind of non-reform -- one that attracts opponents of reform, who know what the proposition really is, but also attracts advocates of reform who don't really know what it entails. It's worse than not fixing the problem at all -- because after the false fix, it may be a long time before the problem is revisited again.
"It's an incumbent protection act," Beatty told me. "And I felt I had no choice but to oppose it. For me, real campaign finance reform is the issue that transcends all others." Reports from the set indicate that this dynamic duo may, as they say in California, have legs. They nailed the spot in a single take -- all the more remarkable given Beatty's reputation for exhaustive reshoots.
The strongest signal that we need campaign finance reform used to be the fact that our leaders simply refused to enact it. Now, it's watching our leaders try to kill reform while masquerading as reformers. The ballot initiative that brought the rebellious senator and the iconoclastic movie star together is a nasty piece of political deception. In 1996, as soon as California voters passed Prop. 208 -- a tough campaign finance reform initiative backed by, among others, Common Cause and the League of Women Voters -- the leaders of the two parties joined forces to protect the status quo. They sued to have the will of the people overturned.
While a final judicial ruling is still pending, earlier this year the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a Missouri law with contribution limits similar to those imposed by Prop. 208. "Leave the perception of impropriety unanswered," Justice David Souter wrote in the majority opinion, "and the cynical assumption that large donors call the tune would jeopardize the willingness of voters to take part in democratic governance." The Supreme Court decision spread panic among the powers-that-be in Sacramento, since it dramatically increased the chances that Prop. 208 would actually go into effect. Plan B was needed.
So, led by state senate president pro tem John Burton, they whipped up Prop. 34. Introduced in the middle of the night -- at 1:55 in the morning, to be precise -- it was steamrolled through both houses of the legislature without any public testimony and only a 15-minute committee hearing. On the last possible day for getting a measure on the November ballot, the bill was signed by soft-money poster boy Gov. Gray Davis. The second front was open.
In exchange for his signature, Davis demanded -- and received -- a pair of concessions: the maximum contribution for the governor's race, originally set at $10,000, was doubled to $20,000, and even that wouldn't go into effect until after Davis runs for re-election in 2002 (a race for which he's already raised over $21 million).
And that was just the beginning of the political skulduggery. The Sacramento powerbrokers (who will, no doubt, all be wearing McCain masks this Halloween) set out to mislead the public about the nature of the measure and the identity of those opposing it. First, and rather amazingly, the proponents of 34 were allowed to handpick who would write the arguments against their proposition for the trusted "Official Voter Information Guide." Kind of like letting Joe Torre fill out the Mets' line-up card ("Piazza? Nah, I don't think he should play").
Not surprisingly, the strongest opponents of Prop. 34 were left on the bench, replaced by a pair of Sen. Mitch McConnell wannabes, whose vehement anti-reform screed makes the pro-34 forces seem like the second coming of John McCain. As if this weren't enough subterfuge, the official ballot description of the measure conceals the fact that passage of Prop. 34 would decimate Prop. 208 -- including, of course, the sine qua non of campaign finance reform, limits on soft money contributions to political parties.
Because of this, as Scott Harshbarger, president of Common Cause, told me, "The entire reform community is united in opposing the proposition and condemning the action of California's elected officials in gutting real campaign finance reform."
But so great is politicians' determination to maintain the corrupt status quo, so vast the arsenal of deception at their disposal, and so shameless their willingness to deploy it, that Prop. 34 probably would have prevailed had it not been for McCain and Beatty.Thanks to them, enough public attention might be drawn to the sham to expose it -- and drive a stake through its heart. And then these strange bedfellows can take their act on the road. After all, in Hollywood there's no better bet for a sequel than a good buddy picture.
© 2004 Christabella, Inc. All rights reserved.
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