By Anthony York | 02/11/10 12:00 AM PST

Within 48 hours this week, two independent committees were formed that could fundamentally change the way political campaigns are run in California.

Spooked by the prospect of running against a Republican gubernatorial candidate with virtually unlimited resources, allies of Attorney General Jerry Brown have pledged up to $40 million in two separate independent expenditure committees to boost Brown’s gubernatorial ambitions.

The creation of the two committees is a tacit admission that, within the current confines of California’s campaign finance law, Democrats felt they would not be able to compete with the vast personal resources of former EBay CEO Meg Whitman or Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner.

Whitman, whose net worth has been estimated at more than $1.2 billion, has pledged to spend more than $100 million on her run for governor. Poizner, who sold his GPS company for nearly $1 billion, has already poured nearly $20 million into his campaign.

A new independent expenditure committee backed by labor groups and othe major donors is coming together to boost Jerry Brown and other Democratic candidates across the state.
One of those committees, which will be called California Working Families 2010, is expected to have a budget of more than $20 million, sources close to the committee say. Word of the Working Families committee comes one day after paperwork for a separate committee, Level the Playing Field 2010, was filed with the secretary of state. The Chonicle’s Matier and Ross reported that committee, which will focus on attacking Whitman, is also claiming to have a budget upwards of $20 million, though no contributions have yet been reported.
“You’ve got a perfect storm of factors here.,” said Jason Kinney, a Democratic strategist associated with the Level the Playing Field Committee. Chief among them, says Kinney, is the fact that “the Republican candidates are essentially billionaires whose entire fundraising operation will be a walk to the ATM.”

Kinney said the potential tough political atmospherics for Democrats, along with lingering economic woes that have made it difficult to raise money are adding to anxiety from large Democratic donors to act. “It’s asking a lot for a candidate who’s not a silver-spoon billionaire to broadcast a message month after month and do all the other things a candidate needs to do,” Kinney said.

If the two committees do in fact deliver the $40 million promised to boost Brown’s gubernatorial campaign, it would mark the continuation of a trend that has marked legislative campaigns over the last several years. With campaign finance limits in place, big donors are setting up parallel campaigns funded by independent expenditures that often dwarf the candidate’s own campaign spending.

“Clearly, it’s in reponse to Whitman’s money,” said Bob Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies “She’s upping the ante there. If she were not spending this much money, I don’t think you’d see this kind of activity.”

But Stern said the large independent expenditure committees come with potential risks for Brown as well.

“If voters don’t like the ads coming from these committees, they won’t get mad at Burkle or the carpenters. They’ll get mad at Brown.”

The Working Families coalition is expected to include labor unions including the California Conference of Carpenters, which has been close to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, and other labor groups, as well as major contributions from Burkle. It will be run by several political operatives with close ties to the Obama administration. Among them, Larry Grisolano, a partner in the Chicago-based political firm AKPD, where Obama political guru David Axelrod is a partner. Grisolano has also worked closely with the Service Employees International Union, one of the state’s largest political contributors.

Others involved in the group include Frank Quintero, who works for Burkle’s Yucaipa Company; Jason Kruger, who served as Obama’s senior adviser for labor during the 2008 campaign, and Roger Salazar, former spokesman for Gov. Gray Davis and a partner in the Sacramento-based firm Acosta/Salazar.

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