Whore vs. Bore

Californians have refused public campaign financing, and we've gotten what we deserve: a governor's race between a fund-raising slut and a clueless rich guy

In France last week, according to the Wall Street Journal, left-of-center voters stocked up on clothespins and gloves to place on their noses and hands as a way of signaling displeasure while they voted for incumbent President Jacques Chirac. The leftists, you see, were supporting the conservative Chirac only because the alternative -- the race-baiting ultra-right candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen -- was, for them, unthinkable.

That the odd and frightening Le Pen made the final presidential ballot was an electoral fluke; in the end, Chirac won the presidential runoff overwhelmingly, and French authorities refused to allow sartorial indications of electoral displeasure. Such playacting, those authorities held, was not in accord with the solemn exercise of the franchise. Because we must never do anything the French find tacky, Californians are left in a quandary: Without nosepins and gloves, what are we to do about Gray Davis and Bill Simon?

So far, the major left-coast media have served up our major gubernatorial candidates as depressing cartoons.

Simon is portrayed as another one of those politically-wet-behind-the-ears, multizillionaire, pro-business stiffs the Republicans keep throwing into statewide races; subtextually, it's hinted that he's a right-wing kook of ominous proportions. (The San Francisco Chronicleseems to feel a special duty to warn of Simon's latent Le Pen- like tendencies. Since the March primary, Chronicle scribes have found it necessary to tell us -- twice, in breathless, oh-my-God, Page 1 Sunday "scoops" -- that Simon, a conservative Republican, has actual conservatives working on his political staff. Soon, I expect, the Chroniclewill publish a five-part series of exposés on businessmen in the Simon campaign.)

Gray Davis, on the other hand, has been sketched as a wily if unprincipled political operator, a man who, despite a well-earned reputation for uninspired oratory and craven pandering, has a genius for campaign fund-raising and strategy that derailed his biggest Republican threat, former Los Angeles Mayor Dick Riordan, with millions of dollars of attack ads. (As a scandal over a state contract for Oracle software blooms, the press is enlarging on its negative subtext for Davis, but it's still vaguer than Simon's; it combines, generally, the ickiness of the governor's nonstop campaign fund-raising with the incompetence of his handling of the energy crisis.)

Now that the cartoons are drawn, it seems, all that's left is a smelly horse race that the media will call for us, all the way till November:

Davis takes a 14-length lead as Simon stumbles over a pile of unreleased income tax forms ...

But now, with the incumbent clearly laboring under the Oracle strapped to his back, Simon is coming up on the outside ...

Across the front pages of the major dailies, a crude, best-of-two-evils race will play out. Many a story will document the laments of voters dismayed at their gubernatorial choices. Many an op-ed piece will bemoan the likelihood of low voter turnout caused by disgust with the gubernatorial race.

There will be insufficient pondering of a clear and present question: Why doesthe largest state in the most powerful nation on Earth keep winding up with offensive nonentities as candidates for leadership positions?


In 1907, concerned about corporate influence over public life, Republican President Theodore Roosevelt signed the Tillman Act into law, making it illegal for corporations to contribute to federal candidates for office.

Here in the trend-setting state of California, 95 years later, even though there is no more obvious source of potential political corruption than the corporate treasury, we haven't managed to get around to banning corporate donations yet.

In federal races, the size of contributions has been limited since 1974, when the campaign abuses of Watergate made it clear that unregulated election donations could subvert democracy in dangerous ways. Individual contributions were capped at $1,000 per election, or $2,000 per year. (Under campaign finance reforms passed this year, that limit will rise slightly.)

Until recently, state candidates in California here could accept any wad of cash anyone (or any business) was willing to fork over. Gray Davis and state Senate strongman John Burton are among the most efficient hunters and gatherers, reeling in $25,000, $50,000, $75,000, and, in Davis' case, even $100,000 donations with abandon. The last time I looked, the governor had $28 million in the bank -- and that's after spending some $10 million to poleax Riordan in the primaries.

This year, a package of campaign finance "reforms" known as Proposition 34 begins to fall into place. Prop. 34 will change some facets of California's campaign finance regime ever, ever so slightly for the better. Contribution limits on state legislative candidates will roll out this year; limits on contributions to gubernatorial candidates will, of course, not kick in until after the November election.

But even after the California "reforms" are all in place, nothing much will have changed. Political players -- the people and firms seeking contracts, licenses, permissions, and other favors from the government -- will be able to hand gubernatorial candidates campaign money in chunks as large as $20,000. Corporations will still be able to give directly to candidates.

And Californians will be left with the same choice we have had for a long time now:

We can elect a candidate who is so wealthy he can fund his own campaign (and pray the candidate knows something -- anything -- about running a government and possesses some -- any-- concern about the unrich).

Or, as we have done once already with Gray Davis, we can elect a whore.


There really can't be much dispute about it.

The governor's a strumpet.

Of course, I'm not saying that Gray Davis accepts money for sex. (It's probably just a personal failing, but I find it hard to package Davis and the physical act of sex in the same thought.)

I'm certainly not suggesting I can prove a single quid pro quo, even one instance of the governor receiving a campaign contribution in explicit exchange for official action.

No, our governor's a whore in the way that teenage girls who wear blouses so thin their areolas become items of public debate (and who give multiple other indications that they will strive to please any guy with weed, rock, X, tequila, or a car) are referenced, by their male contemporaries, as whores.

Now, Gray Davis is certainly one coy slut. He raises millions upon millions of dollars, essentially nonstop, in and out of election years, in gigantic chunks. To give the governor a $5,000 campaign donation is to be a political small fry. A list of major Davis campaign donors shows that there have been 425 individual donations larger than five grand -- over the last eight months. There have been 17 contributions of $100,000 or more during that time, making a $5K gift almost a matter of shame.

Then, when it is pointed out that a gigantic campaign contribution from this or that business interest somehow seems to coincide with favorable action from the state government, Davis' able campaign spokesmen coyly declare that political donations never play a role in the governor's policy decisions. Why, just look at the decisions that have gone against contributors!

There is truth to the notion that Gray Davis takes so much money from so many interests on so many sides of almost every policy question that he cannot satisfy all his campaign contributors simultaneously. California Common Cause Executive Director Jim Knox describes the situation this way: "He is militantly moderate, which allows him to leverage money from all sides."

And this is precisely the problem at the center of electing a harlot to public office. There's just no telling who she might do.

From prison guards (who want and get raises) to Indian tribes (who want favorable regulation of gambling) to the Oracle Corp. (which got one hell of a state software contract), across the insurance, energy, telecommunications, and real estate sectors, Gray Davis has accepted tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars of campaign money. Meanwhile, the state has passed out long, slurpy kisses to the donors. The governor maintains there is no connection between the money and the slurps, and, anyway, he never went all the way.

It doesn't really matter, to me, whether the governor allowed penetration. At the very least, Davis has done an amazingly lifelike imitation of an exceedingly prolific political streetwalker, and California deserves a higher tone in its highest office. Certainly, when we fill that office, we deserve better than a choice between an Equal Opportunity Slut and the Rich But Vacant Ingénue.

We will keep getting best-of-evils choices so long as the campaign finance system is not changed to give a wider range of candidates a decent shot at running for office. For statewide candidates to get their messages out to California's huge and far-flung citizenry, they need to use television and other mass media, and mass media cost masses of money. To date, we, the citizens of California, have told the candidates to get the money however they can. This policy has naturally advantaged those who are already wealthy and those who are most adept at raising money by spreading their political legs.

If we want candidates who are primarily policy experts and political leaders, rather than campaign finance whores and clueless rich guys, we will have to remove fund-raising acumen from the list of political traits we encourage. It doesn't take magic to diminish the importance of fund-raising in the political process. All that's required is public funding of political campaigns.

Raising the prospect of public funding for California elections always elicits cries of horror from the state's anti-tax crowd. These folks (who ruined California schools with Proposition 13, and are still proud of the carnage) don't seem to understand that not funding political candidates costs vastly more down the line -- in boondoggle contracts and giveaway concessions -- than the relatively small amount of money public campaign funding requires. All they see is the government seeming to give money away to politicians.

But in politics, particularly, you get what you pay for, and our system of electing public officials is an act not just of self-government, but of self-definition. When we, the general citizenry, refuse to fund political campaigns, we create the vacuum that is inevitably filled by private-sector campaign contributors -- the johns of the political game -- and the whores they patronize. When we say that saving a few million dollars on the front end is worth enduring horrid candidates for, and holders of, high office, we are saying something about our values.

When we fail to reform a particularly rancid political system -- when we continue to purposefully link hookers with customers -- we deserve to be called the pimps we have been for far too long now.

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