CA Legislature Mulls Bill to Raise Dark Money and Bypass Party Endorsements

California is, in many ways, one of the most interesting laboratories of democracy today. Even as the nation at large recoils in response to unified Republican rule in Washington, California has never been bluer and more progressive. It also happens to be the fifth largest economy in the world. Between Hollywood and Silicon Valley, California is probably the most important driver of cultural and technological change in the world.

In a state where Clinton beat Trump by more than 30 points–and Bernie Sanders received 46% of the Democratic primary vote even after it was clear he had few viable paths to the nomination–Californians are well to the left of what its legislature can, or is willing, to accomplish. Politicians famously lag behind public sentiment, usually only moving to the positions held by base voters when forced. Grassroots activists do their best to push them to be more responsive to their constituents than their donors. California is no exception, and conflicts are frequent.

The latest fracas between the legislature and the grassroots in California is Assembly Bill 84. AB84 basically allows for a dark money back channel to the leaders of the legislature in the guise of “party committees.”

Special interests could put more money directly into the hands of California legislative leaders, giving them greater influence over campaigns, under a bill unveiled last week as lawmakers left Sacramento for summer recess.

Legislators also added provisions to the bill to require political parties to file more frequent and timely campaign finance reports with the state. They describe Assembly Bill 84 as a measure that increases transparency …

Political observers and advocates for campaign finance reform raised immediate concerns about the bill.

“Apparently there is more transparency, but the question is in exchange for what?” said Emelyn Rodriguez, a political and election law attorney and former senior counsel at the California Fair Political Practices Commission. “It looks like the exchange could be raising and spending larger or unlimited amounts from more sources and possibly including lobbyist and lobbying entities.”

Most of the press around this bill has been about the dark money and transparency angle, and the small sop to increase transparency hasn’t fooled good government groups including Common Cause, CALPIRG, the California Clean Money Campaign and the League of Women Voters of California, among others, who have joined forces to oppose the bill. Not only does AB84 allow more dark money to flood into elections, the bill itself has followed an undemocratic path, via a fast-track and gut-and-amend process that has bypassed most of the standard debate and public comment.

But there’s something even darker at work than dark money. The bill is largely in direct response to the endorsements of California’s grassroots progressive organizations, including and especially the California Democratic Party itself. Normally, party committees must work jointly through the party itself, which means abiding by the party’s own endorsements.

California’s Democratic Party is not only one of the most progressive ideologically, it is also one of the most grassroots-oriented in structure. Approximately one-third of its members are appointed by legislative leaders, about one-third are county central committee leaders, and one-third are elected at caucuses held in each Assembly district once every two years. This makes the party accountable to its base in ways many other state parties are not.

This, in turn, means that the party makes endorsements and takes stances that are sometimes inconvenient for incumbent legislators. This most famously took place last month, when the party’s executive board voted to endorse Senate Leader Kevin De Leon over sitting senator Dianne Feinstein, largely because of her disconnect from local issues and her conservative voting record on everything from the death penalty to the Bush tax cuts, the Iraq War, Wall Street deregulation, and much more.

The empire is now determined to strike back against its own base by raising dark money on its own, calling the funding vehicle a “party committee” to protect more conservative incumbents against actual party-endorsed challengers–even if it means breathing new life into the California Republican Party by allowing even more dark money to flow into their coffers, as well. This is a bad idea.

Passing AB84 would likely inflame tensions among California’s progressives at a time when unity is crucial and necessary to resist the Trump Administration and lead the country in a more progressive direction.

David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.