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‘This Is Not a Stunt:’ Behind the Campaign to Force Politicians to Wear Sponsor Labels

February 17, 2016
by Martin Snapp

NASCAR drivers, golfers and tennis players won’t be the only ones wearing patches touting their sponsors if a San Diego millionaire has his way. Republican entrepreneur John Cox is bankrolling a proposed initiative for the November ballot that would require members of the California Assembly and State Senate to wear stickers or badges emblazoned with the names of their top 10 donors.

“They’d only have to wear it on the floor of the Legislature or in committee meetings,” he says. And just to show he’s a reasonable guy, he allows as how “they wouldn’t have to wear it on their pajamas when they go to bed at night.”

It will take 365,880 voter signatures to place the measure on the ballot—the number is determined by the size of the voter turnout in the last election—and the campaign firm that Cox has hired (which, ironically, he declines to identify) has until the end of April to collect them. But he says he’s sure they’ll amass more than enough well before the deadline: “They’re telling me this is the most popular initiative they’ve ever handled.”

And he insists he’s equally confident of success in November. “Who would vote against it?” he asks.

Well, for starters, legislators themselves. State Sen. Loni Hancock (D-Berkeley) calls it both “a mean-spirited attempt to discredit government” and personally insulting.

“It would be like forcing a Jew to wear the Star of David,” she says.

Her husband, Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates, a Cal alum who served in the Assembly for 20 years until term limits forced him out in 1996, is equally down on the idea. He reminisces about Jesse Unruh, the “Big Daddy” of the California Legislature a half-century ago, who is famous for having said: “If you can’t take their money, drink their liquor, screw their women and still vote against them, you don’t belong here.”

“The notion that there’s a simple fix to this seems to be very naïve…. Besides, some­times there are often good reasons for doing things secretly.”

But Bates also acknowledges that it’s “easier said than done. All politicians are planning to run for re-election, and if you vote consistently against people they won’t contribute. And, as Jesse also said, ‘Money is the mother’s milk of politics.’ Maybe this gimmick will embarrass a few people, but it won’t solve the problem because they still have to get that money somewhere. So the real solution would be overturning Citizens United and providing for public financing of campaigns.”

To which Cox responds that public financing wouldn’t work, in part because it places no limits on wealthy candidates who could spend unlimited amounts of their own money.

Although the top 10 contributors vary from politician to politician, it turns out the biggest bankrollers of the California Legislature are unions. An analysis of the last legislative election by the nonprofit political research watchdog MapLight indicates that six of the top ten donors were unions led by the Service Employees International Union, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and the AFL-CIO. Others top donors included corporations led by AT&T, Native American tribes led by the Pechanga Band of Luiseno Indians, and professional groups such as the California Association of Realtors and the California Medical Association.

Cox insists unions aren’t his prime target—he advocates collective bargaining and grew up in a union household in which his mother was a teacher and his father a postal worker. “I’m equally opposed to influence-peddling on both the union side and the corporate side,” he says.

And though he made his fortune in real estate, says he has no financial stake in the California Legislature. “All my investments are outside the state, mostly in Indiana, Illinois and Wisconsin.”

“I love this initia­tive! I love it as a cartoonist’s idea of how to deal with the intrusion of corporate money into politics.”

Other would-be reformers, of course, have tried and failed to counter the role of money in politics. Like every action triggering its opposite reaction, every fix seems to inspire its own work-around.

Asks Ted Lempert, a former Democratic Assemblyman from San Mateo who currently teaches political science at UC Berkeley: “What’s the penalty if you don’t wear the patch? How do you deal with late donations? What about independent expenditures? Like so many campaign reforms, it would be very difficult to actually put into practice.”

The academics are more split.

“The notion that there’s a simple fix to this seems to be very naïve,” says John Ellwood, emeritus professor of public policy at Cal. “If you have a bunch of bright lawyers on one side creating regulations to force people to wear these patches, you’ll have another bunch of bright lawyers on the other side finding ways around it. Besides, sometimes there are often good reasons for doing things secretly. Remember, the Constitutional Convention was done in secret.”

“I love this initiative!” counters Henry Brady, dean of the Goldman School of Public Policy at Cal. “I love it as a cartoonist’s idea of how to deal with the intrusion of corporate money into politics. There are a lot of us who would love to see it because it would be a lot of fun.

“Of course, it wouldn’t solve the problem,” Brady continues. “A lot of money doesn’t come directly from corporations; it comes from rich people who made their money from corporations but who are doing it on their own nickel. I doubt the Koch brothers are giving money through their corporations; it’s through their own personal wealth.”

He also guesses it’s probably unconstitutional, adding “although you’ll have to ask a lawyer about that.”

So we did—Constitutional expert Robert Cole, professor at Berkeley Law.

“The measure would injure a legislator’s legal interests under the First Amendment,” Cole says. “It would injure a First Amendment interest because you would be required to do something that violates your conscience. You’re being made to say something against your professional conscience because you want to keep your political associations confidential, like a newspaper reporter who wants to keep his or her sources secret.

“Since the regulation would violate a legal interest under the First Amendment, it would have to pass three tests to be upheld. The first test is: Does the state have a legitimate and compelling interest in encouraging transparency, and here I think the answer is yes. So the measure would pass the first test—for now. We’ll come back to this later.

California State Capitol—photo by Jeffery Turner

“The second test is what we might call efficiency. And here the measure fails because it’s under-efficient. It’s under-efficient because, for instance, only a handful of people will ever see the patches—the people on the floor of the Legislature—and half of them are your fellow legislators, who already know all about it. In other words, it’s not justified to injure the legislators’ First Amendment interests if you are not thereby adequately solving the problem of transparency.

“The third test you might think of as over-efficiency, or over-regulation. And it’s over-efficient because it implies too much. Just because you’re in someone’s pocket on one issue doesn’t mean you’re in his pocket on every issue; yet you have to wear the logo indiscriminately. It’s general taint by specific association.

“And that takes us back to the first test. It turns out under the second and third tests that the effect of this measure isn’t encouraging transparency as much as humiliating the person. It’s what Sen. Hancock called it: like a Jew being forced to wear a Star of David. Or, if you prefer, the Scarlet Letter. And that is not a legitimate state interest. So the measure is unconstitutional under all three tests.”

Cox, needless to say, begs to differ.

“I have plenty of lawyers telling me it would pass Constitutional muster, but I welcome a court challenge. I hope they file it right after we qualify for the ballot. It would only generate more publicity.”

And publicity, it seems, is what this effort is really all about.

“Some­times you have to ridi­cule a system to get change. This is not a stunt.”

This isn’t Cox’s first venture into politics. He was a member of Jack Kemp’s steering committee when the late Kemp—a former football pro, New York congressman and GOP vice presidential nominee—ran for president in 1988. Then in 2008, Cox made an aborted run for the presidency himself, never making it past the Iowa caucuses.

More recently, he funded the recall campaign that forced the resignation of San Diego Mayor Bob Filner in 2013 after multiple allegations of sexual harassment, an experience that Cox says fueled his determination to do something about the corrupting influence of big money in politics. “The Bob Filners of this world could not exist without crony campaign funders,” he says.

He got the inspiration for this campaign last August, when he and some associates staged a demonstration on the Capitol steps in Sacramento featuring 120 cardboard cutouts of generic legislators covered with donor logos.

“A lot of people walked by and said, ‘Hey, that’s great! I’m so glad somebody is doing something about this.’ And we looked at each other and said, ‘Gee whiz, why not use the ballot process to highlight all this? That’ll really get people’s attention!'”

“You can qualify any screwy idea for the ballot if you have enough money.”

“Sometimes you have to ridicule a system to get change,” he adds. “This is not a stunt. It’s actually the first step to the real solution, which I plan to introduce in 2018, called neighborhood legislatures.”

His solution is to split each of the state’s 120 legislative districts, many of which number a million people or more, into 100 smaller districts containing only a few thousand people. Each of these tiny districts would elect a 100-member neighborhood legislature, which would meet regularly, discuss the issues, and select an assembly member and state senator to represent the area in Sacramento. Every bill passed by the state legislature would be referred back to the neighborhood legislatures for ratification before being sent to the governor for final signature.

“With districts that small, there would be no need for consultants and huge ad buys,” says Cox. “I’m hoping that seeing their legislators decked out in corporate logos will cause people to think, ‘Isn’t this stupid? There must be a better way.’ That’s when we hit ’em with the neighborhood legislatures.”

So is the measure likely to make the ballot? “Sure,” says Bates. “You can qualify any screwy idea for the ballot if you have enough money.”

“I want people to say this is a ridiculous solution,” says Cox. “I agree with them. My fondest wish is that every legislator walks in with a clean suit. All they have to do is not take money from special interests.”

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