Saturday, October 30, 2010

The dollar-sign alternate universe

Not always for sale

Remember California's Governor William Matson Roth? You probably don't. How about U.S. Senator Norton Simon? (I know: you're thinking, “Isn't there a museum named after him in Pasadena?”)

Here's a pair of easier ones: Governor Al Checchi? U.S. Senator Mike Huffington?

You're catching on, aren't you? Let's clinch it:

Governor Meg Whitman?

Yeah, right.

While Ms. Whitman still has an outside chance of beating former governor Jerry Brown on Tuesday, most people are now aware that her attempt to purchase California's governor's mansion is falling short. (The joke is on her! Jerry rejected the governor's mansion during his first term in the 1970s and the Reagan-designed mediocrity in Carmichael was sold as a white elephant.)

All of the people cited above were (or are) multi-millionaires who decided the best route to elective office was a self-funded campaign. While Whitman is taking the cake with over $140 million having been dug out of her deep, deep pockets, her predecessors were pikers only by comparison.

Norton Simon accurately appraised U.S. Senator George Murphy as a light-weight party hack out of touch with the California electorate and decided to challenge him in the 1970 Republican primary. Murphy was a former Hollywood song-and-dance man who had won the seat in a kind of fluke in the Johnson landslide year of 1964, breasting the Democratic tide by beating Pierre Salinger, the short-term placeholder senator who had been appointed when the elected senator died in office.

Simon's dollars, however, could not dislodge the “senator from Technicolor.” Sen. Murphy won the GOP nomination (although he lost in the general election).

In 1974, former University of California regent William Matson Roth decided on a similar good-government tack. Once again, a millionaire spent freely to gain political office. As a self-funded candidate, Roth would of course be beholden to no one, since there would be no financial strings on him. (Sound familiar?) As it turned out, he would not be beholden to many voters, either, since they cast their ballots for other candidates. He came in fourth in the Democratic primary. The winner? Jerry Brown.

For a while, it looked like U.S. Rep. Mike Huffington, a Republican from a California coastal district, might be the exception to the rule that rich candidates can't buy political office. He had displaced his predecessor, a long-serving Republican congressman from Santa Barbara, by washing him away in a tidal wave of money in the 1992 GOP primary. All told, Huffington spent $5.4 million dollars for a congressional seat (but at least he got it). Naturally political consultants and media outlets rejoiced and salivated when Rep. Huffington began to gear up in 1994 for a U.S. senate race against incumbent Dianne Feinstein.

Again, money flowed like water—$28 million this time. But Mike never became a U.S. senator. In rapid succession, Huffington lost to Feinstein, announced he was gay (or at least bisexual), and divorced his wife Arianna. (She probably didn't mind, though, since it was now clear that Mike was not her ticket to becoming First Lady.)

These lessons were lost on former airline executive Al Checchi, who thought it would be nice to be California's governor. He never made it to the general election. In 1998 he dropped $39 million into the Democratic primary, but lost to Gray Davis, who spent “only” $9 million.

Enter Meg Whitman, today's self-funded, no-strings-attached candidate. If nothing else, she is a walking and talking (but not very much) one-woman stimulus for California's political economy. She could have gotten a lot more bang out of her $140 million if she had spent half of it on charity instead of those incessant, aggravating, and mind-numbing advertisements. (Meg, ever heard of diminishing returns? How about diminishing election returns?)

Is it ironic or merely amusing that Whitman's opponent in Tuesday's election—the once and future governor Jerry Brown—made his political career back in the 1970s by sponsoring the Fair Political Practices Act, which created the reporting mechanism that tracks all of this wacky campaign spending and established the state's disclosure rules (which the federal government would do well to emulate)? The Fair Political Practices Commission recently released a report that makes for some sadly entertaining reading: Breaking the Bank: Primary Campaign Spending for Governor since 1978. Shake your head and cluck your tongue while scanning the cost-per-vote data for the losers, who clearly had more dollars than sense (or votes).

Let's give Jerry Brown the last word. From an article by Bill Boyarsky in the Los Angeles Times, December 28, 1973, when Brown was California's secretary of state and gearing up for his first successful gubernatorial run:
Democratic Secretary of State Edmund G. Brown Jr. proposed Thursday that he and the other prospective candidates for governor spend no more than $750,000 each in the 1974 primary election.


Kathie said...

It seems as though the REAL winners in elections nowadays -- at least money-wise (and the US does seem to be turning increasingly into Mahagonny) -- are the folks who create, and the media outlets that sell, campaign advertising.

A modest proposal (albeit with tongue firmly planted in cheek):

Perhaps elections could be abolished and each political office simply auctioned off to the highest bidder on election day. This would serve the dual purpose of cutting out the middlemen, while sparing us all those vitriolic ads.

(Besides, could Norton Simon have been any worse a Senator than George Murphy?)

Zeno said...

One of my acquaintances told me of a guy in Santa Barbara who retired a wealthy man after working on advertising media for the Huffington campaigns. It's a "friend of a friend" story, but easy to believe.

Sen. Murphy was the epitome of the First Lord in HMS Pinafore:

I always voted at my Party's call
And I never thought of thinking for myself at all

It was unlikely that any replacement would have been a weaker senator than Murphy. His replacement turned out to be John V. Tunney, who was followed by Sam Hayakawa, and then by Pete Wilson. Except for Wilson, who was elected to a second term he did not complete because he became governor, all of these senators served a single term -- an unlucky trend that began with Clair Engle, who died in office during his first and only term. Dianne Feinstein took the seat in 1992 and has held it ever since.

Kathie said...

Am old enough to recall Clair Engle's tragic illness and death. But for his posthumous lake, I fear he'd long since have been quite forgotten. He seemed to have been a decent person.

My late father was not a huge fan of DiFi, so in the June 1990 gubernatorial primary supported Van De Kamp -- who, as you'll recall, came in 2nd, alas.

Zeno said...

I regret to tell you, Kathie, that Clair Engle Lake has reverted to its old name of Trinity Lake. However, his brave vote in 1964 for the Civil Rights Act, just before he died, will never be forgotten. He was so sick he had lost the power of speech and voted "Aye" by pointing silently to his eye.

Porlock Junior said...

George Murphy! A name to conjure with. (And btw thanks for the long list of nebbish senators who've held that seat, even if the length reminds me how ancient I'm getting.) No comments thread would be complete without the musical link:

Particularly juicy, the introduction's mention of an incredibly unlikely actor to think of himself as a politician, don't you think?

Zeno said...

It's not a complete list, Porlock. While I mentioned Pierre Salinger, I skipped the other appointed senator. That was the hapless John Seymour, who held the position as an interim senator when Wilson became governor. Seymour was Wilson's handpicked successor, but Feinstein unceremoniously kicked him out in 1992.

Kathie said...

Clair Engle Lake reverting to Trinity, Zeno? Horrors.

Of course, in that case perhaps Hoover Dam could revert to Boulder Dam as well. My New-Deal-supporting maternal grandfather refused to adopt the name-change from Boulder, not only on political grounds but also because he claimed Hoover wasn't even a very good engineer ;-)

Kathie said...

PJ, you aren't old enough to remember when Oakland "Tribune" publisher Wm. Knowland was Senator, and Goodwin Knight (Earl Warren's successor, following the latter's elevation to the US Supreme Court) was Governor, are you? Well, if not, you may at least recall a plaque listing Goodie's name on the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge, which opened during his governorship, ending the last regular SF Bay auto-ferry service. But I digress....

In 1958 someone calculated that it would be a lock for California's incumbent Republican Governor and senior Senator to swap offices, with Knight running for the Senate and Knowland for Governor. Inasmuch as by then the US was in the depths of the then-worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, both men lost to Democrats -- Clair Engle for Senate, and Edmund Gerald Brown Sr. for Governor. And, as you can see, that 1958 election resonates indirectly to this day.

Zeno said...

The 1958 office-swap scheme was Sen. Bill Knowland's plan. He wanted to run for president in 1960 and it was believed in those days that a governor's office was a better launching pad than a senate seat (though JFK was soon to prove that wrong). Goodwin Knight did not want to run for the U.S. senate. He liked being governor and wanted to run for re-election, but Knowland controlled the Republican Party apparatus in California and could shut off the contribution spigot. Knight did as he was told and the great debacle followed.

It was the end of Knowland's political career. He took over the family's Oakland Tribune as publisher. In 1974 he shot himself.

Kathie said...

Zeno, now that you mention it, I DO seem to recall Knowland's Presidential aspirations. Also, do you know why he killed himself (perhaps bipolarity)? I've been away from my beloved native California so long that it's hard to keep up with more recent political developments there, while my memories of the older ones fade for lack of reinforcement from other Golden Staters. It's like living in a diaspora...

Sili said...

Whatever happened to the Gubernator?

Zeno said...

Arnold is termed out. He served more than half of the term from which Gray Davis was recalled and a full subsequent term. That's it for him. Jerry Brown was governor before term limits were passed in California and he is therefore eligible for up to two more terms.

I'm glad to see Arnold go away, but I don't have much use for term limits.

Kathie said...

We already have term limits: they're called elections.

Zeno said...


drmathochist said...

@Zeno and @Kathie

I agree in principle, but surely you see how a position of power provides a huge edge. Name recognition alone among a poorly-informed electorate is enough to cement power-bases. Term limits are an attempt to offset this inherent imbalance.

Are they perfect? No. But saying "elections" like that is about the simplistic level of discourse I'd expect from a tea-partied.

Zeno said...

This was not a discourse on the rationale for or against term limits, drmathochist. I merely expressed my disdain for them.

Term limits are a simple and clumsy fix for the perceived problem of entrenched incumbents. Having worked for an "entrenched" incumbent who was nevertheless thrown out of office in favor of a rank novice, I fail to see the need of such drastic remedies. The situation in Sacramento is never-ending testimony to the problem of short-term legislators being shown the door while still trying to learn the ropes.

The Ridger, FCD said...

Term limits are throwing the baby out with the bath water. They aren't a fix, they're just another problem. (Note, I don't deny the first problem's existence...)

And I say that as someone who grew up in Tennessee when it couldn't have a governor re-elected, so Frank Clement and Buford Ellington just swapped terms for decades...

Kathie said...

drmathochist, the system seems to be working pretty well in tossing out incumbents during the 2010 election cycle. First Arlen Specter was run out of the GOP entirely (then lost to Joe Sestak in the Dem primary), while Charlie Crist and Lisa Murkowski lost to tea-partiers in their Republican primaries so are now running as Independent and write-in candidates, respectively. Tea-party-endorsed candidates ousted other Republican moderate incumbents in several primaries (as well as Bob Bennett in the Utah caucuses), and it remains to be seen how the most extreme of them will fare tomorrow in major races in Delaware, West Virginia, Kentucky, Colorado, Nevada and Alaska (what others have I overlooked?).

Vox populi.

drmathochist said...

@Kathie: the plural of "anecdote" is not "data".

@Ridger: I agree that term limits are not a great solution, but neither is insisting that there's no problem in the first place, which was my point. (to be clear, I understand that you don't deny the problem)

Kathie said...

drmathochist, to denigrate numerous examples by calling them "anecdotes" doesn't make them any less valid. The voters will decide all this tomorrow.

Besides, if voters keep electing incumbents longer than you'd like, that's their prerogative -- no one's holding their feet to the fire, you know. However, you arbitrarily favor denying their right to re-elect an incumbent repeatedly whom voters think is doing a better job than their opponent could do. Where's the justice in that?

drmathochist said...

@Kathie: I favor it to doing nothing. If you actually read what I said, I keep saying over and over that it's not a particularly good solution, but it's better than simply pretending the playing field is level and the electorate is well-informed.

Incidentally, I also favor spending caps to prevent corporations -- which by their nature can accumulate orders of magnitude more wealth than individual citizens -- from having inordinate influence on the political process.

Kathie said...

drmathochist, "doing nothing" would be allowing office-holders to retain their offices without running for reelection. That's not what I'm advocating: I'm saying it's up to the voters (and offer the numerous examples from 2010 primaries as compelling evidence).

drmathochist said...

@Kathie: no, that makes the playing field even more imbalanced.

Look, I understand that you don't believe that there's any inherent advantage conferred by incumbency. I also understand that you believe a half-dozen examples make an ironclad case, and that you don't feel the need to consider the much larger number of seats just this year which at no point had any significant chance of being overturned as counterexamples. You're free to believe that there is no problem at all in the first place.

And I'm free to believe that holding your breath until everybody turns blue is the sort of rhetorical strategy the tea partiers employ.

Kathie said...

Of course there are some advantages conferred by incumbency -- but there are likewise inherent liabilities (familiarity breeding contempt, 'n' all that).

I infer you take such a dim view of voters' judgment that you believe we're incapable of voting out an incumbent we think has overstayed his/her welcome. Perhaps you also favor repealing the 17th Amendment, like some of the extreme right-wingers. However, I must respectfully disagree on both counts.

Kathie said...


The Ridger, FCD said...

A bad "solution" isn't necessarily better than the problem, and resisting it isn't the same as refusing to admit that the problem doesn't exist. Doing something, anything, isn't necessarily better than doing nothing.


Kathie said...

drmathochist wrote: "I also understand that you believe a half-dozen examples make an ironclad case."

First of all, if you go back and count, you'll see that I cited 9 examples total, and even those by no means comprise a comprehensive list; they're just several off the top of my head.

Nor did I ever claimed they created an ironclad case, just an interesting trend worth examining (since there are a good many others as well).

And finally I wonder, how many examples do you expect before considering the possibility that a trend may in fact be occurring -- would anything less than 100% suffice for you?