California has tight limits on how much corporations or unions can directly contribute to political candidates. But the state has no such limitations on how much these organizations can contribute to independent expenditure committees — creating an explosion of campaign spending in California that has been very difficult to track.
Over the last decade, California has seen roughly $127 million funneled through independent expenditure committees (the equivalent of political action committees, or PACs) to candidates. While corporate interests are not directly funding candidates, these committees allow them to indirectly send money to campaigns.
Examining the flow of money through various committees reveals just how opaque many of these contributions are. Let’s take a look at one California politician: State Senator Roderick Wright, a conservative Democrat who represents the state’s 25th district located in Los Angeles.
Senator Wright is a vocal critic of policies to reduce global warming pollution. Last month, Wright held a hearing in the Senate Select Committee on California Job Creation and Retention, in which he slammed California’s carbon reduction policy, AB 32, also known as the Global Warming Solutions Act. That law, passed in 2006, establishes a cap and trade program designed to reduce carbon emissions to 1990 levels by 2020.
Wright used the hearing to criticize the cap and trade program as an economic disaster for California, while reportedly questioning the existence of global warming. Senator Wright was also the only Democrat to attend a March hearing in which Lord Monckton — one of the most widely-discredited climate deniers — testified to the California legislature in opposition to pricing carbon. Wright used the opportunity to claim AB 32 was like telling manufacturers “you should get out” of the state.
Having a Democrat critical of such a progressive climate law in California could be a key asset to energy companies that would be impacted by a price on carbon. And an analysis of campaign expenditures shows a curious relationship between Chevron, various expenditure committees, and Senator Wright.
An examination of political spending from September of 2011 to May of 2012 shows that contributions from Chevron Corporation closely match contributions funneled through California expenditure committees that eventually made their way to Senator Wright through an organization called the Alliance for California’s Tomorrow.
Here’s the timeline of contributions:
September 14, 2011: Chevron contributes $375,000 to Jobs PAC, a political arm of the California Chamber of Commerce.
September 30, 2011: Jobs PAC contributes $255,000 to California Now Independent Expenditure Committee.
March 27, 2012: Chevron contributes $100,000 to Californians For Jobs And A Strong Economy.
April 3, 2012: Chevron contributes $250,000 to California Now Independent Expenditure Committee.
May 1, 2012: Californians For Jobs And A Strong Economy contributes $100,000 to Alliance For California’s Tomorrow.
May 24, 2012: California Now Independent Expenditure Committee contributes $260,000 to Alliance For California’s Tomorrow.
May 4, 2012 – May 29, 2012: Alliance for California’s Tomorrow contributes $424,130.71 to Senator Roderick Wright.
Senator Wright’s office did not comment on the nature of the contributions.
So what does all this mean? It simply proves these amorphous expenditure committees make it very difficult to know how much a company like Chevron is spending to support a candidate like Wright — a man who could potentially be a valuable Democratic ally.
Here’s another example of this round-about spending: Jobs PAC, the California Chamber of Commerce’s committee heavily funded by Chevron and Philip Morris, reportedly funneled $35,000 to a Republican candidate running against Senator Wright in a June primary race. The Republican, Charlotte Svolos, was running in a heavily Democratic district, thus making her chances of winning in the general election next to nothing.
Tim Herdt, the Sacramento Bureau Chief for the the Ventura County Star, offered this explanation for the expenditures:
Wright is chairman of the Senate Governmental Organization Committee, which deals with all bills regulating alcoholic beverages, and also a member of the Senate Energy, Utilities and Commerce Committee, which deals with all bills involving energy issues. The only potential threat to Wright’s re-election would be if he is opposed by another Democrat on the November ballot. So why would the Chevron-funded PAC support a token Republican candidate in a Senate race? The only explanation is to help Wright by trying to make sure Svolos gets enough votes in the primary to finish a distant second, but ahead of the other Democrat. The expenditure on Svolos’ behalf is cynically manipulative.
The other Democrat in the race, progressive Paul Butterfield, came in third in the primary, thus making Wright’s re-election almost certain.
As we see nationally after the Citizens United Supreme Court decision, there are myriad ways corporate interests in California can influence politics through unlimited contributions to these committees. It’s impossible to draw a definitive conclusion about the dollars flowing from Chevron through these groups to Senator Wright. But it’s more proof of the sketchy, opaque influence of special interests on elections.