1. Charlie Munger, $69.8 million: The lion's share of this elite group's spending comes from just one man, whose own money largely came from his father. Charles T. Munger, Jr. is the son of Charles T. Munger, Sr., the longtime business partner of investor Warren Buffett. The younger Munger is a Palo Alto physicist whose political donations, per state records, began in 2005. A Republican who wrote checks to help advance the agenda of former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Munger was best known in the early years as the champion of changes to the once-a-decade system of political redistricting (which happened through successful 2008 and 2010 statewide initiatives he bankrolled, and ones for which I first interviewed him back in 2009). Perhaps it was that electoral success that prompted Charlie Munger to think bigger, as he began to write six and seven figure checks to state GOP committees, culminating in a $43 million losing battle in 2012 to help defeat Gov. Jerry Brown's Proposition 30 (which won) and pass a limit on union political power, Proposition 32 (which lost). Munger has also spent generously on legislative races via his own political action committee, as well as a Republican voter registration drive (which led to accusations that some of the registered had their party preference switched without consent).
In 2014, records show that Munger has spent a little more than $7 million, mostly on Republican party operations and candidates. All of this political spending recently earned the spotlight averse Californian some national media attention: number five on the New York Times' list of national big players over the past twelve years.
2. The Family of Don Fisher, $12.35 million: This isn't an individual, though it does begin with an individual -- the founder of the Gap, Donald G. Fisher, who died in 2009. Fisher was a San Francisco native whose donations over the years made clear his passion for politics even as he went on to create a multibillion dollar clothing empire. Fisher was a Republican, but supported candidates across the spectrum, though campaign finance records make clear that business groups and causes were tops on the list.
About $3.4 million in contributions by Fisher were reported just since 2002, an additional $2.4 million given jointly with his wife, Doris. She is an active political player in her own right, having spent more than $3.6 million this decade, $1.5 million of it this year on causes ranging from Gov. Jerry Brown's campaign for Proposition 1 and Proposition 2 to a big independent expenditure effort in support of state schools chief challenger Marshall Tuck.
And then there are the Fisher children, the next generation of big spenders on California politics: Robert Fisher, John Fisher and wife Laura, William Fisher and wife Sakurako. Their causes vary, but common themes include support of groups who want education reform; moderate Republicans; environmental causes (especially opposition to a 2010 initiative that would have rolled back the state's climate change law); and the political efforts of Governor Brown.
(It should be noted that Brown and the Fisher family have some fascinating back stories. Not only was First Lady Anne Gust Brown a long time Gap Inc. executive, but some journalistic sleuthing of redacted files in 2013 suggested that some Fisher family members handed over about $9 million -- money not tracked by campaign records and thus not part of our total -- to an opaque effort to kill the governor's Prop. 30 and also pass Prop. 32 in 2012.)
Combined, the Fisher children have spent about $2.15 million on California politics in 2014 alone. And for a Bay Area based family, it's noteworthy that this includes contributions down south, to the Los Angeles County supervisor's race for Kennedy cousin Bobby Shriver and a Santa Monica state senate candidate (who we'll get to in a moment).
3. Bill Bloomfield, $7.8 million: No one on this list offers a better example in 2014 of the power of independent political contributions than Manhattan Beach businessman William Bloomfield, Jr. A contributor to mainly Republican political causes in California since at least 2005 (per state records), Bloomfield ran for office himself in 2012 -- challenging longtime U.S. Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Beverly Hills) in a newly drawn LA congressional district. Bloomfield lost, but has remained engaged in politics.
This year, the real estate investor has spent close to $5.8 million -- more than double the amount of money he's ever spent on statewide issues -- trying to help elect two men: Marshall Tuck in the race for state superintendent of public instruction, and Ben Allen as a state senator from Santa Monica. The money has been donated to independent committees -- the unlimited and legal avenue for big bucks, given the low contribution limits for donations given directly to Tuck or Allen's campaigns. Tuck is a Democrat who's received the backing of a lot of Republicans in this election cycle. Allen (who, as mentioned earlier, has also received help from the Fisher family) is a particularly interesting choice for the former Republican millionaire Bloomfield, as the Democrat is generally considered a left-of-center candidate in an intraparty state Senate race with national activist Sandra Fluke. Bloomfield's wife, Susan, has also written campaign checks in 2014, though for a much more modest amount.
Bloomfield has been taking some heat for the big money (now closing in on $3 million to help Allen and another $300,000 over the weekend in support of Tuck), and responded on his website last week to that criticism:
Until our campaign finance system is overhauled, we are trying to level the playing field for smart, ethical, good government type candidates who refuse to be part of the "pay to play" system that funnels cash from special interests who want favorable action from the government in return.
And a common thread with others on this list who lean Republican: Bloomfield was a financial supporter of Arnold Schwarzenegger, as well as the ex-governor's causes to change redistricting and the political primary process.
4. Michael Bloomberg, $2.57 million: Okay, so he's a New Yorker. Still, former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg has started making bigger and bigger plays in California politics, especially in 2014. The billionaire politician, whose disdain for the major political parties seemed to grow by the year while in office, now spends money on issues and races outside the Empire State where he thinks he can make a difference. In 2014, Bloomberg has focused more than $1.4 million in California on two things in particular: schools and soda.
On schools, Bloomberg has joined others on this list to fund the independent expenditure campaign in support of schools chief candidate Marshall Tuck (and these contributions are proof, allege supporters of incumbent Tom Torlakson, that wealthy donors who dislike teachers unions are trying to reshape schools). On soda, an issue he lost on in the Big City, the ex-mayor has jumped in with gusto to support to imposition of a local tax on sugary beverages in Berkeley, chipping in more than $647,000 so far -- a huge amount when it comes to a local ballot measure. In the past, Bloomberg has written checks in support of initiatives to boost California's cigarette tax (both were defeated) and even some legislative and local school board races. He may live in the City That Never Sleeps, but more and more his dollars are headed west.
5. Laurene Powell Jobs, $1.6 million: The wife of the late Apple impresario Steve Jobs makes the list not so much because of total dollars as the causes in which she seeks to engage.
Jobs had barely given any noticeable money to state political campaigns ($196, 000 over three election cycles) before 2010, when she wrote a $200,000 check to the campaign to defend California's climate change law and help defeat that year's Proposition 23. Before that, Powell Jobs had stuck to fights against parental notification for a teen's abortion and support of a universal preschool initiative that ultimately fizzled.
In 2014, Powell Jobs has thrown the weight of her checkbook behind a candidate for schools chief. Guess which one? Yes, a $500,000 contribution to the independent effort for Tuck. She also supports the Shriver candidacy for L.A. supervisor; and she's put $100,000 into the 'strong mayor' ballot measure in the city of Sacramento. The mayor, Kevin Johnson, has earned her financial support in his previous campaigns.
These are, by no means, the only wealthy men and women whose checkbooks open wide for causes they care about in the world of California politics. And there are some common threads here -- most notably, the support for some kind of reworking of the state's education system. In particular, three people on the list -- Michael Bloomberg, Laurene Powell Jobs, and Doris Fisher -- have all spent money trying to elect men and women to local school boards, with Powell Jobs and Fisher both backers of a Los Angeles coalition in 2013 that saw two of three candidates defeated. Members of the Fisher family have been big donors to the advocacy nonprofit EdVoice, a group engaged in debates ranging from new teacher dismissal rules to charter schools.
Still, 2014 has marked a big shift in their collective political engagement. Set aside Munger's explosion of 2012 cash and this has been the most active election cycle yet for this group of elite donors. The next question, of course: is 2014 an anomaly, or will they open their wallets even wider in 2016?