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Huffman’s Money

The Speaker of the California State Assembly in the 1960s, Jesse ‘Big Daddy’ Unruh once announced that, “money is the mother's milk of politics.” His was an era of unrestrained financing in state and federal elections. The wealthy and the powerful, and those who sought greater wealth and power, poured money into the accounts of politicians to buy votes and make laws. Strict rules governing campaign finance, lobbying, and gift giving, and requiring public disclosure of these activities, simply didn't exist.

Unruh had another dictum on the subject implying reasons for the lack of ethics rules: “If you can't eat their food, drink their booze, screw their women, and then vote against them, you have no business being up here.”

For those who believe the political system has become increasingly corrupt, Unruh's words harken back to an era of greater independence (if not transparency) for California's politicians from their would be capitalist bosses. It was an age, so the wisdom goes, when the assemblymen would all accept cash, gifts, and sex bestowed upon them by oil companies, big agriculture, and banks, and the very next day vote against these powerhouses.

That's all a fantasy, of course. The money, food, wine, and sex worked most of the time with most lawmakers. There are some reasons, however, to entertain the claim that politics was less beholden to the economic royalists in the mid-20th Century, reasons like more powerful unions to counterbalance corporate PACs, a more vigorous and muckraking press, and in general much less economic inequality.

Notice, though, that these factors mostly fall outside of the political establishment and its self-imposed rules, and ethics. The truth is that if money once held less sway over politics, it was only because the greed of corporations and the wealthy were effectively checked by the power of the press, organized labor, and social movements. All this was predicated on the fact that the corporations and the wealthy controlled a far smaller share of the overall economic pie back then. Power was more widely distributed throughout society. Sort of.

Fast forward to 2011-2012. Since 1970, explains a recent Congressional Budget Office report, incomes for the top 1% of Americans grew by 275%. For the bottom 80% of society, incomes actually declined by several percentage points, adjusting for inflation. Corporate profits for the nation's larger companies have exploded, while smaller businesses have mostly been in a holding pattern. Power has become extremely concentrated at the top.

All the rules concerning campaign finance, lobbying, and disclosure don't mean much because of this larger shift in power. Many politicians would have us still believe that they can take the money and drink the wine of the wealthy elite, and vote against the powerful the next day. It remains as much a fantasy of good governance as it ever was, if not more so. The bigger picture of increasing inequality matters, regardless of what a particular politician says or does.

It should be no surprise then that the money fueling the race for the new 2nd Congressional District is mostly coming from individuals within the top 1% or 5% of America's economic hierarchy. The 2nd Congressional District's vast economic inequalities have already shaped the nature of our political representation, long before a vote has been cast, before anyone has taken the oath of office. The District's pockets of hyper-concentrated wealth have already offered up to us an anointed candidate whose profile overshadows the others by the simple fact of his ability thus far to rake in more than twice the amount of money than the next leading candidate. Money has called the shots from the very beginning.

Like most candidates for Congress, Jared Huffman's donor base reflects the realities of a decades-long class war waged by the top 1-5% against the bottom half of America. Huffman's biggest and most well-organized donors are wealthy Marin County lawyers, real estate investors, bankers, and executives of major corporations. Some of them are liberals, but many are conservatives. Most of the liberals seem to make their money by representing the interests of conservative corporations.

Take Stephen Lewis for example. Lewis is one of Huffman's largest individual donors, having given the Assemblyman $2,500 for his congressional campaign. His wife Mimi Lewis also gave Huffman's committee $1,000. A resident of Nicasio in Marin County, Lewis is a partner in the Barg Coffin Lewis & Trapp law firm (BCLT). Although Huffman is proud of his career as an environmentalist lawyer, his donor from BCLT specializes in defending corporate polluters.

Throughout his career Lewis has defended large oil and pesticide manufacturers, military contractors, and agribusiness companies sued by community groups and workers who have alleged the companies polluted ground water and soil, and exposed workers to deadly chemicals.

One of the most famous cases Lewis worked on was Delgado v. Shell Oil, a suit filed by banana plantation workers in Costa Rica, Panama and Nicaragua against Shell Oil, Occidental Chemical, Standard Fruit, Del Monte Fruit, Dole Fresh Fruit, and other transnational corporations that had exposed employees to dibromochloropropane (DBPC). DBPC is a pesticide banned in the US since 1977. DBPC causes liver and kidney damage, infertility in men, and is suspected of causing breast cancer in women.

Stephen Lewis defended the Occidental Chemical Corp., the California-based manufacturer of DBPC products like “Nemagon” that were used in these banana plantations. Now he's giving money to ensure Huffman wins a seat in Congress. Can Huffman take their money today and vote against them tomorrow?

Through eight of its partners, the Denver-based law firm of Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck (BHFS) has given Huffman $7,500 thus far. This is one of the largest bundles of cash from any single company. BHFS is a national firm with 250 attorneys in multiple offices backed up by as many staff. They're not shy about explaining the nature of their work. According to the firm's website, its lawyers “practice in the areas of corporate and business law, government relations and public policy, litigation, natural resources law, real estate law and gaming law.”

In other words the BHFS law firm is a corporate fixer, with equal divisions attendant to the legal and lobbying needs of their business clients, typically mining and energy companies, water authorities, real estate developers, and casino corporations. BHFS serves the legal needs for companies, and when the existing laws and regulations fail, the firm kicks into lobbying mode to rewrite the laws and regulations for their clients.

BHFS reports spending $5.74 million in the third quarter of 2011 to influence lawmakers in DC. “We’re pleased to enter the final quarter with continued momentum behind our federal lobbying efforts,” explained Al Mottur, managing partner of Brownstein’s Washington, DC, office in a recent press release. “Our revenue increase over the previous quarter highlights the firm’s success in the nation’s most critical arenas, including healthcare, telecommunications, financial services, natural resources and homeland security, among others. Our bipartisan approach and our experienced group of professionals continue to pay dividends for our clients across numerous industries.”

George Carlin once sagely observed that bipartisanship usually means that a larger-than-usual deception is being carried out.

BHFS's current list of clients includes financial corporations like Apollo Investments, mining and oil companies like Noranda Aluminum and Cobalt Energy, real estate companies like the Simon Group, and catch-all peddlers of corporate power uber-alles like the US Chamber of Commerce.

Other law firms rank highly among Huffman's donor base. Many like Ogletree-Deakins specialize in defending corporate power and undermining workers' rights. A few minor donors like Altshuler-Berzon litigate on the opposite side of that fence. As with most congressional candidates, the balance of campaign contributions seems tilted decidedly in favor of business-friendly law firms, however. So, can a would-be US Representative take their money and drink their wine, and then vote against them?

Other donors of note include two principle lobbyists of Platinum Advisors, Darius Anderson and Dan Crane. Anderson and Crane have given Huffman $6,000 as of September 30 for his congressional campaign. Platinum-level contributions indeed.

Anderson is known best for pulling off a real estate deal-of-the-century in the early 2000s when he teamed up with the Los Angeles billionaire Ron Burkle to make a winning bid for the right to build a virtually new city from scratch on Treasure Island. That deal — still in the making really — took extensive inside political connections, lots of promises involving campaign cash, and much lobbying across local, state, and federal levels of government. Anderson seems to have always had plenty of these goodies. He was former Governor Gray Davis' fundraiser-in-chief, and many of the business deals he set rolling in the 1990s and early 2000s were based on that key relationship. According to Bill Meagher of North Bay Biz, Anderson was given his start in politics by one of the region's legends of the game, Sonoma County's Doug Bosco.

Crane, based in Platinum Advisors' DC office, specializes in lobbying the Congress on tax issues of concern to major corporations. His official biography on the company's website boasts, “Crane has worked on virtually every major piece of tax legislation since 1986 for numerous clients, including The Chubb Corporation,Securities Industry Association, Citigroup, Raytheon and USX Corporation.”

Platinum's 22 other lobbyists mostly have backgrounds working as staffers for members of Congress, or in state and local government offices. The usual career path is to move from there to the private sector, into big banks, weapons manufacturers, oil companies and tech firms, and then finally to connect the two as a lobbyist, getting paid big bucks in the process.

A final Huffman donor worth noting is Harvey “Skip” Berg. Berg is best known for having owned the Sears Point (now called “Infinion”) Raceway for a decade, 1986-1995. In Mendocino and points north he's known for being an owner and director of the Northwest Pacific Railroad, Co., alongside Doug Bosco. Through his company Berg Holdings, ‘Skip’ controls the Port of Sonoma. He owns many other bits of real estate in the North Bay. Berg Holdings employee J.T. Wick has paid $1,198 into Huffman's campaign also.

The last time Berg's companies benefitted big time from their friends in Congress was in 2005 when the North Bay Ferry Service was awarded $20 million in federal funds to establish a ferry service from the Port of Sonoma to landings in San Francisco and Oakland. This taxpayer funded scheme requires destruction of wetlands and tidewater areas in Sonoma around the port.

Berg and his associates are currently pressing ahead with related and more grandiose plans. Berg hopes to fill 528 acres of wetlands within the Carneros Ranch (a property adjacent to the Port of Sonoma which he also owns) with over 9 million cubic feet of sediment dredged from the mouth of the Petaluma River in order to raise the entire ranch from a foot below sea level to between seven and eleven feet above sea level. A recent Sonoma County resolution in favor of Berg's massive land-shaping enterprise states, “the proposed soil enhancement program of importing, amending, and elevating soil will allow the ranch to advance from marginal hay production to winegrapes, olives, tomatoes, flowers, and produce.” The project would appear then to be another vineyard conversion. Instead of involving bulldozers and chainsaws to remove a forest ecosystem, this conversion uses clamshell dredges, slurry pipes, and 40-acre “elutriate” cells to literally create land atop marsh.

Pretty much all of Skip Berg's dealings are like this. His business model is entirely dependent on pliant state and federal environmental and transportation regulations and the decisions of elected leaders, so it's no wonder he's a major Democratic Party funder. Berg, like nearly everyone else discussed above, isn't hedging his bets on any other candidate in the race for the 2nd District, however. The funders assume he is a shoe-in.

The overwhelming majority of major donors to the Huffman campaign live nestled in Marin County's enclaves of hyper-wealth. Of Huffman's total campaign haul reported to the Federal Elections Commission as of September 30, 2011, 63% of his contributions from individuals came from within the 2nd Congressional District's lengthy boundaries. 34% of his campaign cash has come from donors outside of the district, but still residing within California. Only 3% of his cash comes from out of state.

However, within the 2nd Congressional District, a full 91% of Huffman's funds are from residents of Marin County. As of September he had not received a single contribution from a resident of Mendocino County; the remaining 9% of his in-district contributions coming instead from Sonoma County residents. The result is that California's 2nd Congressional District is effectively the property of millionaires who live in Marin County, many of them the lawyers and executive officers or owners of major corporations.

That said, Huffman is taking money from individuals with business interests in Mendocino County. Members of San Francisco's Fisher family have so far contributed $10,000 to Huffman's campaign. The Fishers own upwards of 10% of all private lands in Mendocino County through their control of the Mendocino Redwood Company. Huffman donor Bob Fisher is also a long-time board member of the Natural Resources Defense Counsel, Huffman's former employer in his environmental lawyer days. Since his political career began, the Fishers have been major financial supporters of Huffman.

The AVA will continue coverage of the campaign for the 2nd Congressional District as more campaign finance data becomes available for each of the candidates. Readers can download a complete list of Jared Huffman's individual campaign donors through September 2011 here.

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3 Comments

  1. Darwin BondGraham December 18, 2011

    Mr. McInerney,

    Thanks for taking the time to read this piece.

    Unfortunately I find your characterization of my article —which fades into an ad hominem attack against me— quite off putting, and it makes it hard to respond in a constructive way.

    I think you do raise an interesting point though.

    However, before we get to that point, let’s clear a few things up. You call this article “dumb” and you characterize my reporting as “lazy,” and “unsubstantiated,” but you offer zero evidence that anything I’ve said above isn’t true. Usually articles that are “dumb” are those that don’t contain information, or contain false information.

    Would you care to point out any factual errors? Perhaps I made one or two? Maybe I spelled someone’s name wrong?

    And “unsubstantiated”?

    I took care to link the Federal Elections Commission campaign contribution data this piece was based on at the end of the article. How’s that for substance? Or do you prefer reporters use something besides hard data from authoritative sources to substantiate their stories?

    You’ll note I also referenced CA history (contextual substance), and if you look on the Internet you’ll see I’m hardly the first person to make these sorts of “dumb” claims. In fact reporter Peter Byrne profiled Huffman back in 2006, talking about the sources of his campaign cash then. I suppose Peter’s just another “lazy” reporter writing “dumb” articles though?

    Now the legitimate point you make; I appreciate how you point out that the political ideology of individuals can differ significantly from what would be in the obvious political/economic interests of their employer.

    I agree with you completely. Just because someone who works for a particular company -let’s say a law firm that defends corporations against workers who want better benefits, wages, you know, standard stuff- gives money to a candidate, it doesn’t mean that candidate, if elected, will be bestowing direct favors on that firm. Oftentimes we even see contradictory examples. Perhaps you are one? You’ve defended many a corporation against suits brought by workers, haven’t you? You have defended Bechtel and PG&E on different occasions against claims by their employees that they were discriminated against or wrongfully denied benefits, haven’t you? And yet you call yourself a liberal Democrat and support Huffman, one of the better Assemblymen with respect to his voting record on labor issues, and you say Solomon endorsed you in a local election, so your political platform on local matters must be quite liberal.

    If you actually read what I wrote without having a knee-jerk reaction simply because I’m focusing on Huffman, you’ll notice my argument is much more nuanced and conditional. I’m trying to describe broad structural inequalities and influences working through the political system. This is the case even though I describe several individuals who pretty much only give cash to politicians in order to curry favors. Again, I’m hardly the first person to point out this influence peddling. In fact Laurel Rosenhall has a good piece about lobbyists giving money this year to curry favors and put their buddies in office. That’s the whole point of what lobbyists do, right? Jared Huffman is one of the recipients she discusses – http://www.sacbee.com/2011/12/16/4126761/california-lobbyists-write-checks.html

    We can recognize that things are often more complex than they first seem. However, are you really going to dispute the observation that when a powerful person who owns, works for, or is partner in a big firm, gives money to a political candidate or campaign, they are, directly or indirectly, making an investment in securing a political climate they hope will be favorable to their economic position? Of course it’s not this way all the time in every individual case, but the larger pattern holds. Recognizing this as a fact of politics is a prerequisite to recognizing how it is that our nation became so unequal in recent decades.

    Why else would anyone make campaign contributions? What is silly is the notion that we live in a world where people give campaign cash only in the fashion you intend to emphasize: giving big dollars just because we “think [Joe Politician] would be a great progressive Democratic leader in Congress,” or because they are our friend.

    Why do you think we can observe such clear patterns in the sources of campaign money that differentiate the two major parties? Why do unions fund liberal Democrats from Cali like Huffman, and big oil corporations fund conservative Republicans from red states? Why else would we see such targeted funding of specific candidates by specific industries and companies? You can’t deny the patterns.

    Your own example, which you think serves as a criticism to the premise of this article, actually enormously undermines the claim you seem to be intent on making – that there isn’t a meaningful pattern to campaign contributions, and that money isn’t given to influence politicians. You complain that I’ve linked individual donors with their employers. You seem to be saying there’s no link between an company’s interest and that of its employees.

    Factually, historically, and legally you are wrong. The exact reason why federal elections laws require disclosure of employers by contributors is because it’s well established that companies organize their employees, especially their upper-level executives, to contribute cash to specific candidates in order to secure a favorable political climate and friends in high places. American political history is very much a story about how powerful corporate interests use their proxies in the form of individuals to fund campaigns. This is why Congress passed the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971. You’re a lawyer, read the text here: http://www.fec.gov/law/feca/feca.pdf

  2. Tom McInerney December 16, 2011

    This is one of the dumbest articles I’ve ever read, full of incredibly lazy and unsubstantiated reporting. Because a donor to Jared Huffman–who believes that Jared would be a great, progressive Congressman for the North Bay and the North Coast–has a job with a corporation, then that corporation’s interests are somehow aligned with Jared? Huh? Case in point is this article refers to my law firm, Ogletree Deakins, which does represent employers in employment matters, whether it’s immigration matters, employee benefits, counseling on wage and hour matters, etc. Fairly standard stuff. This article does not mention me by name, but it does mention my law firm, since I had to disclose my employer’s name on the campaign disclosure form. I also am a liberal Democrat and think Jared would be a great progressive Democratic leader in Congress. I’m also an elected official in Marin County, and Norman Solomon endorsed me when I ran for my current seat. And Norman and I were both Barack Obama delegates together to the Democratic Convention in 2008. Because I’m friend with Norman and he endorsed me, does that mean he shares all the politics of some of my corporate clients? Of course not! This article is worse than silly.

  3. GrannyBG December 7, 2011

    This sure sounds like Huffman has strong ties to 1 %ers. (he has taken AT&T contributions)

    The better alternative for myself at least, is Norman Soloman, who is now endorsed by the most progressive legislators in Congress and who has a horde of supporters volunteering for him. Everyone i speak with who has known Norman for years says he is the real thing…which means he walks the talk and has done so for years… as an author and peace activist. Norman has also played a large role in the green or sustainable movements in northern CA..

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