Debt

Capitol Alert
The go-to source for news on California policy and politics
By Jim Miller
jmiller@sacbee.com
04/07/2015 – 12:05 AM

To get to the California state Senate, Temecula Republican Jeff Stone survived a $3 million blitz of mailers, TV ads and other campaigning last year by Sacramento-based groups opposing him or supporting his GOP rival, former Assemblywoman Bonnie Garcia.

Stone’s victory, though, rested on red ink. His campaign reported more than a half-million dollars in accrued bills and personal loans at the end of 2014, the most outstanding debt of any lawmaker.

“It’s something he’s working on now,” said Stone consultant Dave Gilliard. “He knows it’s going to take some time.”

November’s election is in the rear view mirror, but many California lawmakers and unsuccessful candidates continue to live with reminders of costly campaigns. Lawmakers reported about $3.7 million in unpaid bills and personal loans, according to state filings reviewed by The Bee.

Debt retirement fundraisers around the Capitol have been common in recent weeks. Yet such fundraising has long troubled campaign-finance watchers.

Rather than helping a candidate’s re-election prospects, debt-retirement donations reduce a lawmaker’s potential liability to a campaign vendor or credit-card company. Other money goes into the candidate’s bank account to repay personal loans to their campaigns.

“You’re not giving to them so they run a competitive campaign. You’re not giving to them so they can get their message out,” campaign-law expert Jessica Levinson, vice president of the Los Angeles City Ethics Commission, said of campaign donors. “The purpose is, ‘Help me out. I need to retire my campaign debt.’ It’s much more of a specific goal.”

Robert M. Stern, the former top attorney at the state Fair Political Practices Commission who helped write the Political Reform Act, said donors to lawmakers “don’t really care where the money goes. They just want to have access to the officials.”

“But when you’re raising the money for yourself, it’s going into your own pocket. You’re more grateful to the donor,” he said.

Former Assemblyman Roger Dickinson, D-Sacramento, said it is “too simplistic a view” to link debt-retirement donations to any sense of obligation by a lawmaker. He finished his 2010 Assembly campaign more than $180,000 in debt and raised money to retire it during his two terms in office. Raising money is a regular part of the political process, he noted.

“There were people who gave me money to pay off (2010) debt. There were people who gave me money to run in 2012,” Dickinson said. “I didn’t think of them any differently.”

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