[Publisher’s Note: I am very pleased to publish this column from my longtime friend Dan Schnur. When I launched this website in 2005, Dan was one of our inaugural bloggers, penning his first piece on our third day as website. In his column below, Dan makes a couple of significant announcements. The first I will opine upon in coming days. The second, well, I don’t want to steal his thunder. So let’s just say that my friendship and respect for Dan are as strong as they have ever been. Anyway, please enjoy Dan’s latest… — Flash]
During the almost three decades that I have been involved in politics, first as partisan advocate and in recent years as an analyst and observer, I have seen many unusual things. I watched a Democratic presidential candidate don a military helmet and climb into a tank to prove his national security credentials. I watched a movie star steal the show at a Republican National Convention by carrying on an extended conversation with an empty chair.
I have watched voters laugh and cry, scream in anger and sing in delight. I have seen them dance in victory and rage in defeat. But there is one thing I have never seen a voter do.
In all my years of politics, I have never seen an American voter, not liberal nor conservative, not Republican nor Democrat, not Green nor Libertarian nor vegetarian, send a candidate to Sacramento in order to raise more money for their next campaign.
Whether from the left or the right, we elect men and women to office in order to pass laws or prevent them from passing, to represent our interests and our beliefs. We send them to make public policy, to carry our values and our issues and our policy priorities into the ongoing dialogue of state governance. We send them to lower or raise taxes, to improve public education or public safety, to advocate for a government that helps those truly in need and removes obstacles from the path of those who are constrained by its excesses.
Conservatives and liberals disagree strongly on the priorities that the legislature should address. But one area where Californians can and should agree is that when we send a man or woman to represent us in that body we want them to spend their time doing the jobs they were elected to do, not raising campaign contributions for their next election.
In 2010, when I was asked to serve as the chairman of the California Fair Political Practices Commission, I took a leave from my teaching job at USC and returned to state government for the first time in almost two decades. I was appalled by what I saw there.
As someone who watches politics very closely, I knew that state government had become dysfunctional. What I didn’t realize is how bad it had become. By the time I returned to private life nine months later, I committed myself to finding a way to make the system work more effectively.
After extensive research and study, I have come to believe that the answer is an absolute ban on fundraising at any time the legislature is in session. The ban, which would apply to both legislators and statewide office-holders, would extend 72 hours past the end of every session in order to prevent either chamber from gaveling themselves in or out for a few hours or over a long weekend. Both the Senate and Assembly would be required to conclude their respective sessions before any fundraising would be permitted.
Under the current rules, enterprising legislators can schedule a fundraising reception within a five-minute walk from the floor of the state Assembly or Senate, rush out to scoop up a stack of campaign contributions, and be back at their desks before the ink on the checks has dried. That has to stop.
Fundraising is a necessary part of politics. Legislating is a necessary part of governing. But you can’t do both at the same time. First things first.
Defenders of the status quo will correctly argue that time limitations will not eliminate the need for campaign fundraising or reduce the cost of political campaigning in a state of this size. But a ban during session will ensure that our representatives concentrate on the jobs they were elected to do during the time that those jobs demand the most time and attention.
By increasing the amount of time that passes between a government action and a campaign contribution, the appearance of corruption would be dramatically reduced. And the reality of human nature suggests that a check written several months before or after a key legislative vote would weigh less heavily in the minds of all concerned.
In order to make this reform happen, though, I have had to make a difficult decision. When I returned from the FPPC and began my work on this project, I realized that political reform is rarely accomplished from within the parameters of one political party or the other. In order for the voters to see the proposed reform not as a partisan scheme but a legitimate fix to a broken system, it must be viewed as an even-handed effort to make politics and government function more effectively.
During my years of teaching, I have learned that a classroom discussion is much more valuable to students when it is led by an instructor who encourages them to think for themselves rather than to press a particular ideology or partisan agenda. I believe that political reform can best be accomplished in the same way.
In order to move forward with this effort, I realized that I could not do so as a registered member of a political party. So two years ago, after almost three decades as a registered Republican, I chose to change my party registration to No Party Preference. I made that decision not to repudiate a political party or cause, but as a means through which to accomplish necessary reform to a broken political system. As has been the case for many years, I agree with Republican orthodoxy on many issues and disagree on others. That is unchanged. I hope that those of you who have been friends and allies of mine in the past will continue to consider me as such, and that you will join me in my effort to derail the fundraising gravy train that dominates our state capitol.
During my time in politics, I have seen heroes and villains and everything in between. I have seen gypsies, tramps and thieves, each looking to leave their own mark on the political process or carry home with them all the spoils that they could plunder before returning to civilian life.
I have seen many things in my years in politics. But I have never seen a voter tell his elected representative that he wishes that legislator would spend more time raising money. I intend to devote my time in the months of ahead toward building support for a fundraising ban during legislative session, in order to force our elected leaders to concentrate on the job that we’ve asked of them. Regardless of either your party affiliation or mine, I hope you’ll join me.