Money in politics has been a recurrent theme in this election cycle. Campaign finance reform advocates, mainstream media and certain candidates have repeatedly driven home the idea that corporations and rich conservatives are biasing the political process by making big-money donations, often without disclosure. Much of the narrative – advanced by authors such as New Yorker writer Jane Mayer and politicians like Nevada Sen. Harry Reid – has focused on the Koch Brothers, who are blamed for everything from financial deregulation to global warming.
This narrative misses a couple of key points. First, following the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision, liberals predicted a wave of unleashed corporate spending would transform the political landscape. But after spending a combined $6 billion in 2012, Republicans and Democrats produced a federal government that looked remarkably like the one that prevailed before the election. In this cycle, spending by the Koch Brothers and other right-of-center billionaires was not enough to prevent a Donald Trump nomination or the rise of Bernie Sanders, the U.S. senator from a tiny state who occupies the extreme left fringe of the political spectrum.
Second, the Koch Brothers and their allies are not the only major donors trying to influence the process. Such left-of-center billionaires as George Soros, Tom Steyer and Mike Bloomberg also have a large impact. And government union donations are a far bigger factor in certain campaigns in California, as research by California Policy Center and the Freedom Foundation reveals.
If money doesn’t always win elections, it can indeed shape the agendas of the winners. One of the best examples of money that makes a difference is the case of Connie Leyva.
Since 2014, Leyva has represented California’s 20th Senate District, a bow-tied shaped district covering parts of San Bernardino County and northern Los Angeles County. According to Secretary of State data, her campaign committee received 324 contributions totaling almost $746,000. Of this total, we estimate that 79 percent came from unions and union-related committees.
(Our review found possible duplicates among Leyva’s contribution records. Our reporting assumes that each record shown on the Secretary of State’s site is correct and non-duplicated.)
In 2014, California limited contributions to Senate and Assembly candidates to $4100, but also provided a higher limit of $8200 for “small contributor committees.” These committees bundle large numbers of small, individual contributions and then dole them out to various candidates. Connie Leyva received the maximum $8200 contribution from 35 such committees, of which 34 were union-sponsored.
Of the 53 entities contributing the general $4100 maximum, 40 were union-related.
Leyva’s union donors included a broad spectrum of public and private labor organizations. In many cases, several locals and affiliates of a single union donated to her campaign – magnifying their support and influence. Among the unions with multiple contributors were the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW). Contributions from UFCW locals, PACs and other related entities totaled $83,900, 11% of Leyva’s 2014 campaign receipts. This is especially notable given the fact that Leyva was a UFCW union representative and president of a UFCW local before her election to the state Senate.
Although impressive, Leyva’s 79% union contribution proportion actually understates the degree to which labor interests underwrote her campaign. For example, Leyva received just over $25,000 in contributions from individuals, most of whom reported their employers. $7950 of these individual contributions came from employees of UFCW, the AFL-CIO and other labor organizations.
Leyva also received contributions from other candidate committees, including those for Anthony Rendon, Kevin De Leon and Roger Hernandez. All of these candidates received significant union support, so their ability to contribute surplus funds to the Leyva campaign is attributable in no small measure to organized labor.
Finally, Leyva benefited from a union-backed Independent Expenditure Committee. Committees of this type can campaign for or against a candidate, but must operate independently from that candidate’s campaign committee. There is no limit on the size of contributions to Independent Expenditure Committees, which makes them quite popular with large donors.
In the 2014 cycle, the Committee for Working Families spent $290,000 on behalf of Connie Leyva. This committee is sponsored by the California Labor Federation, AFL-CIO. A review of the Committee’s contributions shows that almost all of its money came from union sources (although it did receive a donation from Sean Parker, a billionaire who leans left).
The same committee also spent $44,000 on mailers opposing Democratic rival Alfonso Sanchez in May 2014. Although relatively small, this expenditure may have been especially decisive because Leyva defeated Sanchez by only 1148 votes in the primary to take the second spot on the November ballot. In the general election, Leyva defeated Republican Matthew Munson by a wide margin.
Leyva’s funding far exceeded that of her rivals. Sanchez’s committee received $44,000 in contributions – about 6% of Leyva’s total. That said, Sanchez did benefit from independent expenditures by JOBSPAC, a committee primarily funded by corporate contributions. JOBSPAC spent $269,000 for Sanchez and $66,000 to oppose Leyva.
Munson, the Republican, collected only $260 for his committee and did not receive any support from Independent Expenditures Committees.
What the Unions Got for Their Money
In the state legislature, Senator Leyva has returned the investment unions made in her election.
The California Labor Federation issues an annual legislative scorecard, rating State Senators and Assembly-members on their union-related votes. In 2015, Leyva received a perfect 100% — taking the union-endorsed position on all 25 votes the Federation considered. Nine of these bills were vetoed by Governor Jerry Brown, a Democrat.
For example, Leyva voted for AB 787, which would have banned for-profit companies from running charter schools. As Brown noted in his veto message, the bill contained ambiguous language which could have been interpreted to prevent charters operated by not-for-profits from buying goods and services from for-profit companies. Handicapping charter schools and thereby restricting school choice is an ongoing priority for education unions that contributed to Leyva’s campaign.
Brown also vetoed Leyva-supported AB 251, which would have compelled more developers to pay high state-mandated prevailing wages on infrastructure projects. Brown expressed concern that the measure was “too restrictive and may have unintended consequences.” While the bill would have benefited trade unions, it would have further increased the high cost of real estate in California.
Leyva was one of 11 state senators to receive the Labor Federation’s perfect legislative score, so her record could be seen as unremarkable. But Leyva isn’t only voting for widely-supported pro-union legislation; she is also writing and advocating new, more radical measures.
Recently, she sponsored SB 1015 which would compel disabled and elderly individuals to pay time and a half to their caregivers when they work more than 45 hours per week. This overtime pay requirement has been in place since 2014, but would end on December 31, 2016 in the absence of Leyva’s legislation. When combined with the escalation of the minimum wage to $15 per hour between now and 2022, the time-and-a-half pay requirement will become onerous for many patients who live on fixed incomes. Finally, and without disparaging the important work that caregivers provide, their long hours can be a deceptive, since the people in their charge are often sleeping or watching TV and thus not requiring active support.
Earlier in 2016, Leyva introduced SB 1167, the Worker Heat Safety Act which would require Cal/OSHA to develop new regulations to limit high workplace temperatures. However, employers are already required to safeguard employees against hazardous workplace conditions including excessive heat. Economist John Husing told the Riverside Press-Enterprise that Leyva’s bill could hurt the inland empire’s warehousing industry, which employs over 33,000 workers. “My fear is, this is organized labor going after a sector where it has not had much success in organizing,” Husing said. “They are going the legislative route.”
In the Inland Empire, organized labor pushed aside a business-friendly Democrat and elevated a union executive to the state legislature. They did this by injecting over $850,000 into the campaign, dwarfing spending by rival candidates. The incumbent has repaid her labor paymasters by doing what she was undoubtedly already inclined to do – maintaining a perfect pro-labor voting record and pushing the envelope in the unions’ direction with new legislative proposals.
While readers may differ about the wisdom of the legislation Leyva sponsored and supported, it is hard to debate that union money was essential to advancing her candidacy and agenda. A defense of union behavior is this regard requires one to either reject the notion that “money in politics” is necessarily bad or to argue that big campaign donations are only acceptable when they support a progressive agenda.
If those who wish to defend union support for Leyva and other Assembly and Senate Democrats adopt the latter view, they should not couch their opinions as a call for institutional improvement. Instead, they are advancing a highly partisan belief that “money in politics” is bad only when deployed by people they don’t like.
Will Swaim is vice president of communications for the California Policy Center, former vice president of journalism for the Franklin Center, and founding editor and publisher of OC (Orange County) Weekly.
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The California Policy Center is a non-partisan public policy think tank providing information that elevates the public dialogue on vital issues facing Californians, with the goal of helping to foster constructive progress towards more equitable and sustainable management of California’s public institutions. Learn more at CaliforniaPolicyCenter.org.