Jerry Brown and Meg Whitman engage in political theater as California continues to collapse

The kerfuffle last week over the California Chamber of Commerce attack ad on Jerry Brown was not only an opening salvo in the expected race for governor between Attorney General Brown and eBay founder Meg Whitman, it also underscores concerns over campaign funding and financing in general.

The ad, paid for by the Chamber of Commerce through a front group called Enough Spending, attacked Brown for opposing Prop 13 when it was on the ballot, and for increasing spending.  However, virtually all politicians then including Pete Wilson opposed Prop 13 as did most corporations – and the Chamber of Commerce themselves. That’s right; they attacked Brown for supporting something they themselves also supported at the time.

The Democrats yelled “foul,” saying the chamber violated state law by saying the ad was advocacy, which is permitted, rather than an attack against a candidate, which is not allowable. They also accused the chamber of coordinating with the Whitman campaign because her campaign manager, former Gov. Pete Wilson, is a chamber board member, something which would be difficult indeed to prove.

Others say using the front group was deceptive because it masks who was behind it. But the ad ends with “Paid for by California Chamber of Commerce,” which certainly seems clear enough to me.

Consumer Watchdog has filed a complaint against the chamber with the California Fair Political Practices Commission, and the state Democratic Party said it will do the same (The FPPC is understaffed and underfunded, so I’m guessing by the time they rule on this, it will be irrelevant in terms of the campaign).

The Whitman campaign counter-attacked, saying Brown and his wife threatened companies who are chamber members with regulatory action unless the ad was pulled. Jerry Brown found it “remarkable” the ad was produced out-of-state when Whitman makes a big deal about wanting more jobs here. Both sides emphatically deny all charges and accuse the other side of scurrilous behavior. All of this makes for rousing political theater but really, is anything accomplished by this, or anyone’s views changed?

The regulations for ads like these are unclear, no doubt deliberately so, and allow lots of wiggle room and plausible deniability. The chamber pulled the ad after two days but by then it had gotten major media attention and thus probably more impact than if the Brown campaign had ignored it.

Much more problematic for Brown is Whitman’s ability to self-finance her campaign. She’s a billionaire and has already put $20 million of her own money into the race. Brown hasn’t raised anything near that while she’s just warming up.

Kathleen Brown’s campaign manager Client Reilly said they faced a similar problem in her 1994 campaign for governor against incumbent Pete Wilson. They were massively outspent and faced a “Hobson’s choice” of either spending during the primary in hopes of catching up or conserve until the final push in October.  They choose to conserve, but by October Wilson was way ahead and it was already over. He says Democrats will need to raise $100 million for Brown or face a similar fate.

I find all of this depressing. Political campaigns are increasingly driven by raising huge amounts of money (which makes you beholden to someone, let’s not be naïve here) as well as by attacks against one’s opponent. In all of this, the issues get lost. Nowhere in either the Brown campaign or the Whitman campaign are there serious proposals for the massive problems facing California now.

The budget deficit continues to expand. The political atmosphere in Sacramento is toxic and hyper-partisan. Public pension funds are vastly underfunded. The state is going broke as are many municipalities.

Instead of genuine ideas on how to fix this mess, we get arguments between the candidates over how money can be spent on campaigns. The general election for governor will probably be a mudslinger’s paradise, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. 

As for them proposing a real solution to California’s mounting financial problems, don’t hold your breath. We need to do better than this. We have to do better than this.