Money & Politics | Spotlight
June 4, 2012 | Coulter Jones and Elizabeth Titus

In a state with nearly 38 million people, few have more influence than the top 100 donors to California campaigns – a powerful club that has donated overwhelmingly to Democrats and spent $1.25 billion to influence voters over the past dozen years.

These big spenders represent a tiny fraction of the hundreds of thousands of individuals and groups that donated to California campaigns from 2001 through 2011. But they supplied about a third of the $3.67 billion lavished on state campaigns during that time, campaign records show.

With a few exceptions, these campaign elites have gotten their money’s worth, according to an analysis by California Watch of data from the National Institute on Money in State Politics and state finance records.

The state’s top 100 donors gave nearly five times as much to winning candidates as they did to losers. And they helped steer initiative campaigns to success as well – about 55 percent of every dollar they contributed to propositions aided a winning campaign, the analysis shows.

Some of these top 100 donors are continuing to donate heavily in the 2012 election cycle. For their part, tobacco companies Philip Morris and R.J. Reynolds have spent more than $30 million since January to defeat an initiative on tomorrow’s ballot that would increase the cigarette tax.

“Major players with major stakes in statewide issues are going to make sure their opinions are heard,” said Jack Pitney, a political science professor at Claremont McKenna College who focuses on California issues.

Given its size and wealth, California automatically sets national records for campaign donations – more money is spent here on politics than in any other state.

Not surprisingly for California, the top 100 directed their money in large part toward the Democratic Party, which controls the governor’s office and the state Legislature. Overall, these top donors – 50 wealthy individuals and 50 special interest groups analyzed by California Watch – gave twice as much to Democratic candidates as they did members of other political parties.

But there was a split: Special interest donors favored Democrats, while individual donors favored Republicans by a slim margin.

When broken down, records show the top 50 group contributors – including labor unions, energy companies and tribal governments – were three times more likely to give to Democratic candidates. The top 50 individuals, however, gave slightly more to Republicans.

The state’s most extravagant individual donor and biggest campaign loser is Stephen Bing, the real estate scion and Hollywood producer. He gave more money than any other individual to a state campaign – $49.5 million in 2006 to support Proposition 87, known as the alternative energy oil tax, which failed.

But Bing proved that a handful of California’s richest special interests and individuals have an outsized voice in elections here. The campaign he spearheaded became one of the most expensive in California history, drawing more than $156 million in contributions. Chevron, Aera Energy and Occidental Oil & Gas donated a combined $80 million to fight Bing’s measure.

The biggest special interest donor, the California Teachers Association, spent more than $118 million on campaigns in the state during the past five election cycles and the first half of this one. The union has focused overwhelmingly on initiatives, spending $100 million of that war chest advocating and opposing ballot measures over the past dozen years.

More than a third of its spending went to fight just four propositions that were key pieces of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s attempted government overhaul in 2005. The measures – all of which failed – would have extended the probationary period for teachers, altered the formula for funding public schools, required employee consent on union dues and removed redistricting powers from the Legislature.

Eight tribal governments also made the list of top special-interest donors. But two stood out: The Pechanga Band of Luiseño Indians and the Morongo Band of Mission Indians spent a combined $80 million in 2008 supporting four propositions to expand tribal gambling operations; they all passed.

Individual donors favor GOP

Bing, who also donated to Democratic candidates, was a bit of an outlier among the largest individual donors. The five most generous donors gave twice as much to Republicans than to Democrats.

Andrew “Jerry” Perenchio, the former chairman and CEO of Univision, and Charles T. Munger Jr., a wealthy Stanford physicist, were the state’s second- and third-largest donors. Perenchio gave at least $9.3 million to the state’s GOP, and Munger, who contributed mostly to ballot measures, is active in Republican politics.

California Watch, working in partnership with a Stanford University investigative reporting class, attempted to reach several of the top 50 individual donors. None would comment for this article.

But some of the elite institutional contributors were more open. The California Teachers Association, which has 325,000 members, said it uses an internal council of more than 800 members to vote on which candidates and causes to support.

When collecting dues from its members for political causes, the union operates a two-tiered system. Members give $8 each year to a committee that supports candidates and $36 annually to a ballot measure committee. They have the right to opt out of both committees.

Paul Bailey/Flickr Protesters slam Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger at a 2010 rally supporting the California Teachers Association, the state’s top-ranked campaign donor. The group spent a large portion of its political budget fighting Schwarzenegger during his administration.

To campaign against Schwarzenegger’s 2005 ballot measures, members voted to increase its annual contributions to $60 for three years.

“We were starting to see a lot of things surface that we felt were dangerous and we needed to defend against,” said Dean Vogel, president of the union. “It wasn’t so much a need to promote anything, but a way to defend against egregious attacks against public education.”

Among the top 50 individual donors, men dominate the ranks. Only five are women.

Ann Howland Doerr donated $3.1 million, most of it on two successful proposition battles. She spent $1.9 million for Proposition 71 in 2004, which supported stem cell research, and she gave $1 million to defeat Proposition 23 in 2010, which would have suspended California’s law to curb greenhouse gas emissions. Doerr’s husband, venture capitalist L. John Doerr III, gave more than $9 million to political causes and was the state’s fourth-largest donor.

Self-funded candidates were not included in the analysis, leaving former eBay CEO Meg Whitman off the list. Whitman spent more than $140 million on her failed gubernatorial campaign in 2010.

California Watch’s analysis focused on data through 2011. But the same group of large donors is continuing to exert influence with donations to fight ballot initiatives in 2012, according to data from the California secretary of state’s office.

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