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How Much From Special Interests?

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San Jose Mercury News (California)
Jan 16, 2004 - 01:00 AM

by Dion Nissenbaum; Mercury News Sacramento Bureau

Governor stretches his donation rules;

SPECIAL INTERESTS CIRCUMVENT STANDARD, REFORMERS COMPLAIN
SACRAMENTO -- After refusing money from single-interest trade associations, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger accepted donations from members of a building group who combined their individual contributions and sent them in as one.

While the tactic is legal, critics said it flew in the face of the Republican governor's stated policy of not taking money from single-issue lobbying organizations.

''By his own definition, this breaks the promise of taking money from specific special interests,'' said Jamie Court, president of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights. Court's consumer group drew attention to the practice Thursday by releasing a letter from Ward Connerly, a prominent GOP businessman who was enlisted by Schwarzenegger's political team to help pay off the governor's campaign debt.

Schwarzenegger's campaign strategist Marty Wilson defended the fundraising strategy and rejected Court's call to return such donations.

''It's not a violation of our policy,'' Wilson said.

In a letter sent to members of a small association of local government building officials, Connerly urged them to help raise $50,000 for Schwarzenegger in small donations.

"This provides an excellent opportunity for members of California Building Officials, acting as individuals, to pool their resources so that the voice of building officials might be heard,'' he wrote.

Bundling such donations is allowed under state law. But campaign-reform groups argue that it allows building officials to circumvent the governor's ban on donations from single-issue associations.

''This could lower the already low threshold that the governor has set for what he will accept,'' said Jim Knox, executive director of California Common Cause. ''Schwarzenegger has backpedaled so far in his initial pledges not to accept special-interest money that I don't think his criteria are meaningful anymore.''

That assessment was echoed in part by Connerly, who said Schwarzenegger would have to eventually scrap his standards.

''I think the governor has created a policy that is unworkable, personally, and I think in the fullness of time he's going to have to abandon it,'' said Connerly, who added that he fell far short of his $50,000 goal and that members of the business group gave no more than $5,000 in small donations.

In an attempt to set a new tone, Schwarzenegger made ridding Sacramento of special-interest influence a cornerstone of his run for governor.

But his policy has shifted over time. Initially, Schwarzenegger said he would take no money from special interests. Then he set new rules that bar Indian tribes with casinos, public-employee unions and single-issue trade groups from giving money to his campaign.

At the same time, Schwarzenegger has accepted huge donations from major insurance companies and business leaders with a major stake in how the new governor runs California.

Wilson drew a distinction between major insurance companies, which can donate under Schwarzenegger's policy, and groups like the California Medical Association, a group of health care professionals with more than 30,000 members, which can not.

''I would say that by and large their agenda is much more narrow than a major employer in California,'' Wilson said of the CMA. ''In our view anybody that's a major employer and is making a major investment in the state has very broad parameters of issues they're concerned about.''
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Contact Dion Nissenbaum at dnissenbaum@mercurynews. com or (916) 441-4603.




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