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Monday
Jul192010

Public "Distaste" for Politicians vs. Power of Incumbency 

* SO, HOW DO WE IN THE PUBLIC VIEW OUR ELECTED OFFICIALS IN SACRAMENTO OR HERE AT THE LOCAL LEVEL?  No surprise, with "distaste."   Excerpt from Cathleen Decker analysis in today's L.A. Times:

   In this season of discontent, with millions unemployed or losing their homes or sweating through a difficult recovery, largesse awarded to public officials affirms California's distaste at all things, and all people, political, whether they are taking tickets or huge salaries or not.  The payment of high salaries or perks unavailable to the average voter "implies that public officials feel that they're owed, in a sense, noblesse oblige, and they are better than anyone else," said Bob Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles. "And the public is feeling that."

    There is no way to overstate the animosity with which Californians were greeting their public servants, if the Field Poll is any indication. Upset leaped off the page.  Only 33% of Californians said the country was on the right track, the gloomiest assessment in two years. But that assessment of the nation was rosy compared to views of home: only 13% felt California was going in the right direction.

    In a show of political karma, Schwarzenegger's woeful job approval rating was tied with the lowest reached by Gov. Gray Davis, the man he replaced in a recall — after a campaign in which the incoming governor argued that the outgoing one had lost the support of the people.  The state Legislature's standing wasn't the lowest it ever has been, but it was only three points off the bottom mark. The approval rating hasn't been out of the teens in two full years.

   In other countries, the combination of extreme upset at the economic downturn and dismay at public officials has led to voters tossing out incumbents. In California, that outcome is less likely. The reasons include the drawing of district lines, partisanship and the emphatic importance of money.

    District lines, last redrawn after the 2000 Census, so strongly protected incumbents that only a few have been defeated in legislative or congressional races since then. (After the current census, lines will be redrawn by a citizens' commission under terms of a ballot measure that sought to create more competitive seats.)

    According to the Field Poll, 40% of voters said they were inclined to reelect their member of Congress, and an equal percentage said they'd vote for someone else — a finding which suggests a rough road for incumbents. But a deeper look suggests otherwise.

   When residents in Democratic districts were asked whether they approve of the job being done by their own representative, they said yes, 48% to 28%. When residents in Republican districts were asked, they approved of their representative's job performance, 42% to 35%. In other words, the partisan majorities in California's highly polarized districts still generally approve of their own representatives, however much they may dislike incumbents in general.  The only politician to escape the state's wrath, relatively speaking, was President Obama, who still wins the support of 54% of Californians, though that is well off his high point of 65%.

***And as for the role of money in campaigns, especially for incumbents, Decker writes:

   The other complication in tossing out incumbents in California is perennial: money. According to a report issued last week by the Center for Governmental Studies, incumbents drew more money than their challengers by a 19-1 margin. Although the study covered only the city of Los Angeles, its findings seems to hold true elsewhere.  "We have such anti-incumbent fervor right now," Stern said. "And yet incumbents are getting elected."  (LAT)

 

Monday
Jul192010

News of the Day: Monday, July 19

* DAILY NEWS MESSAGE TO THE MAYOR:  "It's time to quit monkeying around and get to work." -- The paper's editorial perspective regarding the mayor is:  "Checked out.  AWOL.  Taking a powder.  Disengaged.  However you want to put it, it means the same thing when it comes to the top leadership in Los Angeles.  And that, with three years still remaining in his term,  he needs to wake up and stop acting like a lame duck.   (DN)

*  AND, SPEAKING OF EDITORIAL MESSAGES, L.A. TIMES TODAY HAS A MESSAGE FOR THE GOVERNOR:  To ignore his low poll ratings and questions as to what made him "such a disappointment" to so many people and instead use his remaining time in office to make a difference in terms of leaving California's political and financial situation less dysfunctional than what he inherited from his predecessor.  Excerpt:

   If there is any value to term limits, it is in giving a governor enough freedom from day-to-day obsession with poll numbers and popularity contests so that he or she can focus on the job at hand. Schwarzenegger's current task is to forge an agreement on his final state budget and leave California and its next governor in a slightly less dysfunctional situation than the one he inherited from Davis. No amount of playing to the crowd will help him get there.

* PUBLIC EMPLOYEE PENSIONS, NO LONGER A DULL SUBJECT?  Latest on this issue via piece in today's Los Angeles Times.  Excerpt:

  California is one of about two dozen states trying to get a handle on burgeoning pension costs by putting in place a variety of benefits and funding changes.  The drive to reduce costs coincides with estimates from think tanks and economists that the nation's state pension funds collectively could eventually face a $1-trillion to $3-trillion shortfall for currently promised future retirement benefits.  In Los Angeles, former Mayor Richard Riodan has predicted that rising pension and health benefits will push the city into bankruptcy within five years. He has called for a series of reforms, including ending pensions for new hires and raising the retirement age.

   The looming shortfall has been made worse by steep losses in pension investments, particularly in risky bets on real estate and sometimes private equity funds. The value of the portfolio at the state's biggest pension, the $200-billion California Public Employees' Retirement System, is down 23% since a record high in the fall of 2007 and the system asked the state and school district employers to boost their retirement contributions by $700 million for the fiscal year that began July 1.

   Despite the growing financial burden on public treasuries, making a dent in these obligations can turn into a long, bitter slog, as residents of the place that calls itself "America's Finest City" have learned over the last decade.  " San Diego was an early warning of the kind of difficulties that public pension funds could find themselves in," Snell said. "They started with a badly funded plan and it's been difficult for them to move out of it."

   Most San Diego city employees can retire at 50% salary at age 55 if they have 20 years' service. They also receive health benefits, survivor benefits and a "13th check" in years when the pension fund is booming. The average retiree receives $38,484 a year.  Pension payments could consume half the city's annual budget by 2025 unless major changes are made, the San Diego County Grand Jury has warned.

   But politicians have been whipsawed by tax-averse, service-hungry citizens on one side and powerful unions on the other as the pension issue has become an overheated element of the civic debate. Much of the focus has been on the workers, some of whom say they feel they have been made into scapegoats.  Jan Lord, who works in the city's job training program, said that when someone sits next to her on the trolley and finds out she is a city employee, he or she inevitably starts talking about city pensions, often in incredulous tones, mixing envy with anger.  (LAT)

Sunday
Jul182010

Pulling Capitol strings: Lobbyists' influence in Sacramento (Part 2)

* "ATTACK OF THE LOBBYISTS":  Following up on her investigative research pieces last week, San Jose Mercury News reporter Karen de Sa looks further into the significant role of lobbyists in writing legislation in Sacramento, particularly in light of the revolving door of legislators and legislative staff.  For her piece this week, de Sa looks at legislators from various parts of the state, with a special look at San Fernando Valley Assemblyman Feliipe Fuentes.  Via the Daily News, portion of excerpt relating to Fuentes:

FUENTES GETS HELP

For a look at just how influential the sponsors of bills can be, consider two days in the legislative life of Fuentes, the San Fernando Valley politician on a fast track.

The story emerges on videotapes of Senate committee sessions from June 2008. Fuentes was presenting four bills that had already passed the Assembly. All of them were sponsored, three by corporations that were seeking special help from the Legislature.

The private sponsors were SunCal, a real estate developer, which wanted to triple the potential penalty for buyers of high-end condominium units who back out of pre-construction contracts; software security firm Symantec, which wanted to exempt online retailers from a law that prohibits sellers from gathering personal data from credit card purchasers; and Venture Vehicles, which wanted the three-wheeled, partially electric vehicles it was developing to have access to car-pool lanes.

In the hearings, the lobbyists for those companies not only gave testimony, as other supporters and opponents do. As is common practice, they sometimes sat right next to Fuentes as he presented the bills, answering questions and offering guidance.

In one session of the Senate Judiciary Committee, as the committee finished with one bill and moved to the next one, Fuentes simply remained seated while the lobbyist for SunCal vacated the chair next to him and representatives of Symantec and the high-tech advocacy organization TechNet sat down.

Throughout, legislators and witnesses addressed "the sponsor and the author" as equal partners in the bills. And Fuentes and his cadre of lobbyists acted the part, pushing the legislation and responding to concerns in lock-step.

In the judiciary committee, for instance, legislators objected that provisions of the Symantec bill would toss out of court some ongoing privacy lawsuits against online retailers. But Fuentes and TechNet lobbyist Fred Main pushed for approval anyway, arguing the bill could be rewritten to minimize the problem even though committee staffers said it could not.

And in a meeting of the Senate Transportation and Housing Committee, one senator bristled at Fuentes' argument that Venture's three-wheeler should be allowed in carpool lanes because it was, essentially, a motorcycle. But neither Fuentes nor lobbyist Paul Gladfelty gave an inch.

"If you were to see one of these in action and get in one, you'd recognize that this is a motorcycle," Fuentes said. "The thing leans, it moves, it darts in and out of traffic."

In the end, the privately sponsored bills Fuentes presented in the two days of hearings went 2-1, with the Venture bill and an amended form of the SunCal legislation passing the committee and ultimately becoming law, and the Symantec bill failing because of a lawsuit concern.

Fuentes received a $3,600 contribution from SunCal the same week the bill passed both the Senate and Assembly. And two months later, campaign expense reports show, Symantec contributed $2,000 to Fuentes' re-election campaign.

Fuentes, who was one of the two most junior members of the Legislature in 2007-08, declined repeated requests from the Mercury News to talk about his work with the interest groups that sponsor his bills. Lobbyist Aaron Read, who represents SunCal, among many other clients, called Fuentes an important partner. "He's a smart guy," Read said. "He's very diligent."

As one of the top Assembly members for introducing bills sponsored by private interests in 2007-08, Fuentes developed a legislative track record and won supporters whose contributions helped him build influence. The newspaper analysis identified $28,600 in campaign contributions in his 2008 re-election effort from sponsors whose bills Fuentes introduced.

Facing no real threat to his re-election either in 2008 or this year, Fuentes has been generous in passing out contributions to the Democratic Party and candidates in more hotly contested races - more than $150,000 from March 2009 through May 11 of this year.

That generosity did not go unrewarded; he now serves as chairman of the powerful Assembly Appropriations Committee.  (DN)

***AND A SECOND, COMPANION PIECE BY de SA, ALSO, AS IT TURNS, WITH A LOCAL ANGLE, BY WAY OF ANHEUSER-BUSCH, WHICH HAS A MAJOR PLANT IN THE SAN FERNANDO VALLEY:  Excerpt from the piece....

The King of Beers is among the royalty of California campaign contributors, having spent more than $4million on state politics in the past decade.

If the purpose of those contributions is to win allies in the legislature, then Anheuser-Busch's experience with a sponsored bill in 2007-08 suggests it's money well spent.

"It's tough to say `no' to a friend, especially when they've got deep pockets, and there's an election coming up," said Michael Scippa, advocacy director of the Marin Institute, a nonprofit alcohol watchdog group. "Why else would a legislator put his name on a bill that is sponsored by an alcohol company?"

In 2008, Assemblyman Alberto Torrico, D-Fremont, former chairman of the Assembly committee that oversees alcohol regulation, agreed to do precisely that. He pushed a bill sponsored by Anheuser-Busch to ease limits on the ability of beer makers to hand out company-branded trinkets.

Anheuser-Busch was certainly a friend. Torrico had accepted $13,600 in campaign donations from Anheuser-Busch while heading the Governmental Organization Committee. The firm provided Sea World tickets for Torrico's family and a round of golf at an upscale country club for his chief of staff. The company also made a $15,000 donation to the Asian Pacific Islander Legislative Caucus Institute at Torrico's request.

Not to worry, Torrico said: He was not influenced by the beer maker's generosity, and his independence on alcohol issues is well established.

   ***

He called the campaign contributions an unfortunate fact of political life. But after a constituent sent him a note outraged by the Sea World gifts - "I hope you rot in hell" were his precise words, Torrico said - he decided to accept no more.

He has since introduced a bill to bar legislators from accepting gifts, which he now concedes give the public a bad impression.  (DN)

Sunday
Jul182010

Mayor breaks his elbow in fall during bike-ride.....

* Big buzz all around town this Sunday morningOur Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa was riding in the bicycle lane on Venice Boulevard in Mid-City at about 6:50 p.m. last night when a taxi abruptly pulled in front of him. The mayor hit his brakes and fell off the bike.  He was transported to Ronald Reagan/UCLA Medical Center, where he was treated for the broken bone.  By 10 p.m. he had been released and was resting comfortably at Getty House, the mayor's official residence.  (LAT) **** [UPDATEAntonio has surgery on the elbow at UCLA Santa Monica Medical Center....]

* And, speaking of mayors, former Mayor Richard Riordan is also in the news.  Riordan was one of the speakers at a launch party to recruit candidates and raise money for Ron Kaye's "L.A. Clean Sweep" campaign.  Although Riordan, who left office in 2001, said he hadn't made up his mind on whether he wants to get rid of the six incumbent L.A. City Council members targeted in the campaign, he told the crowd that the mayor and council have done little to address the spiraling cost of the city's retirement system.  “If they don’t do anything … in the next year or two, they’re going to have to close down the parks, close down the libraries, stop fixing streets,” he said.  A Villaraigosa aide said Riordan’s dire predictions were outlandish..........

Riordan was not the only controversial voice at Saturday’s event. An appearance by attorney and two-time mayoral candidate Walter Moore, who is known for his opposition to illegal immigration, sparked an angry e-mail from Michael Trujillo, a political consultant who recently worked on Councilwoman Janice Hahn’s failed bid for statewide office.  Trujillo criticized L.A. Clean Sweep organizer Ron Kaye for allowing Moore to speak and questioned whether the group’s agenda is to ensure that there are “no more Latinos in Los Angeles.” 

Kaye disputed that accusation, saying that his group wants Latinos, among others, to run for office against incumbent council members. “We’re trying to get Latinos into office who are responsive to the public and are not beholden to unions, developers and [city] contractors,” Kaye said. “If that’s racist, then it’s an absurd charge.”

Moore said his views on immigration policy are not racist. He accused Trujillo, who also has worked for Villaraigosa, of trying to turn the topic away from the city’s budget woes. “You have a bunch of people so fed up with the tragicomedy at City Hall that those who are entrenched in power just try to smear us as racists,” he said.  (LAT)

Saturday
Jul172010

Newsbriefs of the Day: Saturday, July 17

BRIEF NOTES ON A BROAD VARIETY TOPICS.....

* Concerns about high-speed rail alignment out of Union Station, potential impact on the Cornfield park located on the eastern edge of Chinatown.  (Downtown News)

* El Pueblo (Olvera Street) arbitration hearing put over until September, resolution of decades-long rent battle delayed once again.  Stated reason for the delay:  the July 13 date on which merchants were scheduled to meet with representatives of the mayor, the city attorney and Councilman Jose Huizar had been set "before all parties could check their calendars"...... (Downtown News)

* Disappointment over lack of architectural innovation/design/creativity at U.S. pavilion at the World Expo in Shanghai....  (LAT op-ed)

Commotion, protests raised over barring of a filmmaker from taking his camera into a UC Board of Regents meeting:  was this in violation of the state's open meetings laws?  and/or is the UC policy on this issue is in contradiction to state law?  (SF Chronicle)

Sad state of affairs because of budget crisis....Oakland Police message to residents:  As a result of major staffing cutbacks to our department, we want you to please be sure to tell us about all crimes. --  You need to know, though, we won't be able to do anything about this or to come out and take a report unless it is a "violent crime."  But we do still want you to file a report -- either on-line or by coming into a police station -- so that we can use the information for statistical purposes to help the department in gathering intelligence and determing crime patterns.  (SF Chronicle)

*  A new word in my vocabulary:  "polyandry", the practice of multiple men marrying one woman.  New York Times piece today reports on how and why this has been practiced in remote mountain areas of India over the years....and how changes in India wrought by the modern era is largely bringing the practice to an end.  (NYT)

*  How to use almost $1 million in campaign funds while not running for reelection?  In the case of NY Governor David Paterson, NY Times reports today that Paterson spent nearly $900,000 from his campaign fund in the past four months defending himself as he faced three investigations into his conduct and that of his administration.  Also, NYT piece notes that there is precedent in New York for public officials spending campaign money on legal fees, but the pace at which Mr. Paterson is spending on legal fees is considerable.  (NYT)

*  Reversal of fortune in fundraising for key House and Senate races in November:  Coming back from a severe shortage in campaign funds during the last election cycle, Washington Post reports today that Republicans raised more money in the second quarter than Democrats, thus letting the political world know that the COP will be able to compete in the fall races.  Democrats, however, still have significantly more money on hand than do the Republicans.  (WP)

*  Mexican drug cartels' newest weapon:  Cold-War era grenades made in the U.S.   From the Washington Post:  Although grenades have killed a relatively small number of the 25,000 people who have died in the current drug war against the cartels, what better tool to use for a greater psychological punch than AK-47's and AR-!5 rifles because of their ability to overwhelm and intimidate outgunned soldiers and police while reminding ordinary Mexicans that the country is literally at war.  (WP)