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CA-Init: Whitman’s Purchase of Governor’s Race Shows Need for Clean Money

You may know by now that Meg Whitman added $20 million more of her own money to her campaign war chest this week, bringing her personal stake in the California gubernatorial race to $59 million. Fortunately, she does have her limits: she says she won’t go a dime above $150 million. (Because she needed some help, the state Chamber of Commerce is attacking the Democrat in the race, Jerry Brown.)

This Whitman’s sampler is only the most egregious of a trend toward self-funding of outrageous sums in elections. Michael Bloomberg, Jon Corzine, and dozens of other uber-rich men and women have stratified our political space, widening the gap between the electable and the unelectable. Very few Senators are not millionaires; very often the first question out of a political operative’s mouth about a new candidate is “can they self-fund?”

Massive self-funding has the possibility of backfiring, of course, with charges of “buying the election” hurled at Whitman from her primary challenger and her Democratic opponent. And there are certainly isolated examples of big money self-funders doing a belly-flop: Al Cecchi right here in California in 1998 comes to mind. But Whitman is actually testing a model of spending comparable to a corporate marketing budget, where nothing else in the same space can even get in a word to challenge it. “We’ve never seen anything like it,” said longtime California journos Jerry Roberts and Phil Trounstine.

As it happens, we have an opportunity to see if Whitman’s purchase of the election can spark an immediate backlash. Because on the same day as her Republican primary in June, there’s an initiative on the ballot, Prop. 15, which would create a pilot program for public financing for the Secretary of State’s races starting in 2014. It would also drops a restriction for local governments to allow clean money elections in their municipalities. Robert Cruickshank writes:

Here’s the background. In 1988, Proposition 68 made it to the June ballot, an initiative that would have created a public financing system for statewide elections. Polls showed it was likely to pass, so the legislature under Speaker Willie Brown, and with the encouragement of Governor George Deukmejian, placed a competing proposal on the same ballot, Proposition 73. Prop 73 provided some campaign contribution limits, but also barred anyone from being elected to office who had received public funds […]

Prop 15 would reverse the Prop 73 restriction – which is why it has to go to the ballot in the first place. If Prop 15 passes, local governments will be able to create their own publicly funded elections systems, though they’ll have to also create the funding source. The state legislature could also expand public funding to other statewide offices as well, including governor, but they too would have to create a new funding source.

As Meg Whitman dumps another $20 million into her campaign, it’s another reminder of how Californians need publicly funded elections to return democracy to this state and power to its people. Prop 15 opens the way to such reforms, and should be strongly supported. For more info on Prop 15 and how you can help pass it, go to

Incidentally, Prop. 15’s financing for the Secretary of State’s race would be financed by a tax on lobbyists. Might as well charge the people who run Sacramento.

There’s a hope that the incredible amount of money and advertising Whitman is putting into the election will create an overkill effect and just make people sick of her. We will know whether it will lead people to conjure if another way is possible for financing elections. Prop. 15, aside from being good policy, could signal a desire from the voters to end the buying of our elections.

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David Dayen

David Dayen