Ever since organized labor killed legislation late last month that would have improved transparency in political campaigns in California, many rank-and-file Democrats and good-government advocates have been angry and bewildered. After all, the legislation — Senate Bill 52 — was designed to shed light on the influence that corporations and wealthy individuals wield over the state’s political process. Unions, as a result, were expected to embrace the bill, especially because Big Business, which tends to side with the Republican Party, would likely have been impacted by it the most. Instead, organized labor in California made the defeat of SB 52 its number-one priority of the 2014 legislative session.
Why? Union officials have yet to adequately explain why they worked so hard to kill SB 52. The bill would have required political groups that run ads in favor of or against a statewide ballot measure to prominently disclose their top three funders. The legislation also would have banned big donors from hiding behind shadowy nonprofits with innocuous-sounding names — such as Americans for Responsible Leadership, the name used by a secretive group in 2012 to finance a campaign designed to slash union power in the state.
What’s strange is that unions in California don’t usually hide behind secretive groups nor do they shy away from publicly declaring whether they’re for or against a political cause. Indeed, it’s not unusual for TV or radio ads to include a disclaimer like “this ad was paid for by the California Teachers Association” or “paid for by the California the Nurses Association.” For that reason, SB 52 was not expected to have had any impact on union-sponsored political advertisements. “The intensity of the opposition just doesn’t make much sense,” said Bob Stern, a longtime good-government advocate who co-authored the California Political Reform Act in the 1970s and had supported SB 52.
So what’s really going on here? To date, union officials have only put forward what critics have described as weak arguments: that the bill would have been too cumbersome and created too much paperwork. But those excuses are feeble, critics say, when considering the fact that SB 52 would have forced large corporations to prominently state when they funded an ad. For example, if SB 52 had been in effect in 2006 during a statewide campaign over a proposed oil tax, ads that stated “this ad was paid for by Californians Against Higher Taxes,” would have instead stated, “this ad was paid for by Chevron, Aera Energy, and Occidental Petroleum.” (Those three fossil fuel companies were the campaign’s largest donors.)
“The unions are so wrong about this,” said Joni Eisen, a longtime Democratic activist in San Francisco. “Ultimately, they’re siding with the Koch brothers. It’s a horrible situation.”
So horrible, in fact, that many longtime liberal activists are now questioning whether they’ll be out campaigning for Democratic legislators this November. “I’ve never seen this much outrage from Democratic activists,” said Craig Dunkerley, president of the Santa Clara County Democratic Club, noting that increasing transparency in political campaigns is part of the Democratic Party platform. “These are core reforms … for crying out loud. You don’t expect to get stabbed in the back by union leadership.”
So why would California’s union leadership risk angering grassroots activists over a bill that would have at worst created more paperwork? Could it have been, perhaps, that SB 52 might have affected unions in ways that no one had anticipated?
The bill’s requirement that political groups prominently disclose their top donors in ads wasn’t expected to be a problem for unions, because they get their money from members’ dues. Thus, there are no top donors to disclose in a union-sponsored campaign, other than the union itself. But what if a union got a large contribution from a wealthy individual or a corporation to use in a political campaign? Under SB 52, that union would have had to prominently disclose the donation, which it might not want to do. Indeed, disclosure that a union had been accepting large contributions from Big Business could severely damage a union’s reputation and might lead to the ousting of that union’s leadership. Such an outcome could also provide a strong incentive for making the defeat of a bill like SB 52 a high priority.
Now, there’s no proof to date that unions have been accepting such donations. But, then again, they haven’t yet been required to disclose if they have. SB 27, a bill that was signed into law by Governor Jerry Brown in May, will require all groups that engage in politics, including unions, to disclose their major donors later this year. However, the new law contains loopholes that could prevent complete transparency this election season. For example, it does not require disclosure of any donations made before July 1.
Lance Olson, a Sacramento attorney who has been representing organized labor on SB 52 and who wrote SB 27, did not return a phone call seeking comment for this column.
Transparency Comes to Oakland
Last week, the Oakland Public Ethics Commission and OpenOakland, a civic tech organization dedicated to government transparency, launched a website that provides city voters with easy-to-navigate data about campaign fundraising in the Oakland mayor’s race. The site, OpenDisclosure.io, includes information about who’s giving to whom and how much.
Perhaps the most interesting stat on the site is the revelation that so much money is pouring into the race from outside of Oakland. In fact, only one of the top candidates — Joe Tuman, a San Francisco State professor — has received at least half of his donations from Oakland residents (57.7 percent). At the other end of the spectrum is Port Commissioner Bryan Parker, who has received just 31.5 percent of his funds from Oakland residents.