Special Interests Spending Millions on 2 of Jerry Brown's Ballot Initiatives

by | October 6, 2014

By Seema Mehta

California Gov. Jerry Brown is collecting millions of dollars from special interests to help him promote two pet projects on the November ballot: a water bond measure and a state rainy-day fund.

He has raised more than $6.2 million in less than three weeks in favor of the measures, Propositions 1 and 2, the centerpieces of his otherwise sleepy re-election bid.

Though the two measures are not formally connected, Brown has made clear that they are his top priorities. He is expected to use the proposals as his main vehicle for seeking an unprecedented fourth term, campaigning not as an incumbent asking voters to let him stay, but as a sitting governor focused on the state's needs.

The money, much of it from labor and agricultural interests, will help pay for television advertisements expected to start later this week featuring Brown touting both measures. Both interest groups typically have business on the governor's desk, and both will benefit if the $7.5 billion bond measure passes.

Union official Ernie Ordonez said borrowing to finance improvements in the state's water system would help all Californians in addition to his rank-and-file workers. Those laborers would help build the storage projects _ such as dams _ that would be paid for with $2.7 billion of the bond money.

"Dealing with the drought and water issues _ that creates jobs for our members," said Ordonez, assistant manager for the Pacific Southwest region of the Laborers International Union of North America, which contributed $400,000 to Brown's fund for the propositions, according to campaign filings with the state.

"If this bond goes through," Ordonez said, "we'll be able to build some infrastructure that will help keep us prepared for future years."

Agricultural groups whose parched members are tearing out crops and thinning herds because of the drought, as well as individual farming and dairy operations, have contributed more than $1 million to the effort.

"Proposition 1 is the first opportunity we've had in four decades to do something meaningful for our water infrastructure, and we need to seize that opportunity," said Rich Matteis, administrator of the California Farm Bureau Federation, which gave $250,000.

Western Growers, another farm group, also contributed $250,000 and is soliciting pledges from its members to match that amount.

"Donors to Proposition 1 have two motivations," said Steve Hopcraft, adviser to the opposing campaign. "There's people who want to get something. ... They want land, they want water or they want to pour concrete. Then there is another group that wants to curry favor with the governor."

California's campaign-finance laws allow unlimited donations to committees that support or oppose ballot measures. Brown's propositions fund is separate from his candidacy account, which has a limit of $54,400 per contributor.

Many of the donors supporting the ballot measures have also given to the candidacy fund.

Hopcraft pointed to a $250,000 donation to the propositions account from the political arm of the California Hospital Association, which also gave the maximum to Brown's re-election campaign. Among the association's top legislative priorities this year was the defeat of three bills that would have expanded state oversight of its members and the hospitals' liability. Brown vetoed them last month.

An official of the hospital group disputed that its donations were intended to sway the governor.

"We made the decision to give to both (propositions) because they're good for California, nothing more complicated than that," said Jan Emerson-Shea, vice president for external affairs. "We support having clean water, and we support the state having a healthy fiscal reserve."

The governor did not respond to requests for an interview. His political spokesman said the donations flowed out of support for Brown's actions of the last four years and recognition that the water projects and a state savings account are crucial for California's future.

"The governor's work to put the state on the right track has earned a ton of respect," said spokesman Dan Newman. "People support what he's done and understand Propositions 1 and 2 are a way to lock in the progress and keep up the momentum."

Wealthy individuals have also chipped in to back the ballot measures. Napster co-founder Sean Parker gave $1 million. The Fisher family of San Francisco _ the co-founder of the Gap and three of her children _ contributed $980,000. Netflix co-founder Reed Hastings donated $250,000. A representative for Hastings declined to comment, and attempts to reach Parker and the Fishers were unsuccessful.

Both propositions are endorsed by the state's Democratic and Republican parties, which rarely agree on anything, and by many other groups. In public-opinion polls, voters have favored the water bond bid but been less certain about the rainy-day fund.

Others are raising money separately in support of the measures. But the bulk of the checks are being written to Brown's committee, which he converted from his 2012 tax-measure campaign and had $2.9 million left in it.

Fundraising from special interests, "unfortunately, seems to be an integral part of our political process," said Brown's Republican opponent, former Wall Street bailout czar Neel Kashkari, who has accepted money from the financial sector but whose fundraising has been dwarfed by Brown's. "And Jerry Brown is using it to further his objectives."

Kashkari, interviewed Saturday, supports Propositions 1 and 2 as "better than nothing" but says they "fall far short of what we actually need." Brown, who is leading the gubernatorial race by roughly 20 points in the polls and has a separate $23 million re-election account, has yet to campaign for himself or ask Californians explicitly to vote for him again.

Times researcher Maloy Moore contributed to this report.

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