Money Shapes Power of Capitol Committees

Assemblyman Mike Gatto was sworn in on June 10, 2010. Since then he's raised $5,762,242.83. (Courtesy the California Assembly)

Assemblyman Matthew Dababneh had some compelling reasons for wanting to chair the state Assembly's Banking and Finance Committee.

The San Fernando Valley Democrat worked for U.S. Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Sherman Oaks), a senior member of the House Financial Services Committee, for nearly a decade, including during the recent recession as Sherman tackled Wall Street and credit rating reform. Improving financial literacy in the congressional district was also a key issue during Dababneh's time as Sherman's district chief of staff.

"I was really drawn because of experience and personal interest to serve on the Banking and Finance Committee," Dababneh said. "For me, my (committee) requests were based on my experience, subject matter I thought was most relevant to my district, where my interests lie and wanting to focus my attention on some of the policies I want to pursue."

There's something besides expertise, however, that sets Dababneh apart from most of his Democratic colleagues in the state Assembly: his impressive fundraising prowess, which he's used in part to help other Democrats get elected.

A KQED and Maplight.org analysis of data, along with interviews with current and former lawmakers, shows that the most powerful committee chairs in the state Assembly share a knack for prolific fundraising and a propensity to funnel this money to the Democratic Party and other Democrats running for office. Our analysis looked at campaign finance contributions from when each current member entered office through the end of 2014.

Generosity is clearly not the only consideration for Assembly speakers when they are assigning committees -- but former Assemblyman Tom Ammiano said it "absolutely" is a key factor.

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The San Francisco Democrat said he was often asked why he needed to raise money when he was running virtually unopposed.

"Here’s why you need to raise money: You raise money and then the party takes it. They are very nice about that, and they take it and you are able also, because you don't give it all to the party. You are able to help candidates you like," he said. "And a chairmanship will usually come with that -- not necessarily … the final say is between a member and the speaker, and there are other political obligations that speaker might have."

Dababneh questioned whether the Banking and Finance Committee chairmanship is even really a "juice" committee, as they are historically known in Sacramento. He noted he was taken off the Governmental Organization Committee -- a committee often seen as a fundraising bonanza because it regulates gambling, alcohol and tobacco -- when he became Banking's leader.

But Banking and Finance, along with Governmental Organization, Insurance, Appropriations, Health, Utilities and Commerce and Business and Professions are typically seen as the most powerful committees in the Assembly because they oversee legislation that impacts the state's most influential -- and monied -- industries and interests.

For the purpose of this analysis, we also included a newly created committee, Privacy and Consumer Protection, which stands to wield an enormous amount of power in years to come.

A review of campaign finance data through the end of 2014 from the entire state Assembly Democratic Caucus revealed:

  • Over their time in office, the current chairs of those eight committees raised nearly $20 million combined -- on average, $847,000 more each than the rest of Democrats in the Assembly. Only two of those chairs, Asssemblywoman Susan Bonilla (D-Concord) and Assemblyman Mike Gatto (D-Glendale), have been in office longer than two years.
  • Those chairs also funneled a total of $3.4 million to other campaigns over the past five years, with $1.9 million of it going straight to the California Democratic Party.
  • The biggest contributors were Gatto, who has funneled more than $630,000 to other Democrats since 2010; and Utilities and Commerce chair Assemblyman Anthony Rendon  (D-Lakewood), who spread around an impressive $641,000 in just three years.
  • Dababneh has been in office only since late 2013, but has proved to be a more prolific fundraiser on an annual basis than any other lawmaker besides Gatto. Dababneh raised an average of more than $840,000 a year; Gatto has brought in more than $1.1 million annually on average.
  • The average amount "juice" chairs gave away was $435,116 during their time in office, nearly twice as much as the rest of the Assembly Democratic Caucus, whose members contributed an average of $239,627.
  • Both Bonilla and Gatto saw big bumps in fundraising after they were named chairs of juice committees.
  • All of the chairs managed to dramatically increase their annual fundraising after being elected -- some, including Health chair Rob Bonta, D-Oakland, and Insurance chair Tom Daly, D-Anaheim, doubled their fundraising between their first and second terms.

The Rise of Party Politics

In the past, the assumption has been that chairs of juice committees excel at fundraising largely because the powerful interest groups they are regulating want access and influence over the lawmakers.

But our analysis didn’t find overwhelming connections between chairs' campaign contributions and the businesses they regulate.

Public employee unions and unions representing the building trades were the top two donors to nearly every committee chair. Other big donors included: the real estate and development industry; Indian tribes; public safety unions; and the medical and dental industries.

San Francisco State political scientist Jason McDaniel said caucus leaders reward generosity to other Democrats because term limits and campaign finance laws have curbed the power of individual politicians and made the party more important.

"I don't think it's a quid pro quo. Look at it this way -- who would you trust more? This is a team, a team effort, is how they think about it," he said. "And if you are on a team and someone is out for their own stats, like in basketball if you give them the ball and they never pass the ball -- I think that’s how leadership sees these kind of things."

It's a question of "who can we trust more, not  who can raise more money and has better connections to the big money industries," McDaniel said.

There are exceptions to the rule. Assemblyman Adam Gray (D-Merced) chairs the powerful Assembly Governmental Organization Committee. But Gray actually took way more from the party than he gave during a tough re-election battle.

And Gatto, who raised more than any other lawmaker in the Assembly, lost his plum position as head of the Appropriations Committee last year to Assemblyman Jimmy Gomez (D-Echo Park).

The new Assembly Privacy committee still stands to wield influence, but not nearly as much as Appropriations, which is where many bills live or die.

"It's been explained to me that I am the No. 1 fundraiser for the Democratic Party in the history of Assembly, yet I lost my chairmanship -- so that's either tremendous disloyalty on the part of the speaker or lack of correlation with money and chairmanships," Gatto said.

Former Assembly Speaker John Pérez, who was termed out last year, said he considered a range of things when deciding who to name to leadership roles, including their desires, policy expertise, temperament and leadership skills.

"There's absolutely never been a litmus test that I have seen" for fundraising, Pérez said.

But he said the same skills that make someone a successful legislator are usually found in strong fundraisers.

"Sometimes the folks who are the most successful fundraisers are also the most successful at being aggressive in a number of areas, so sometimes it's a skill set that people have in common," he said. "But it's not a dispositive skill set."

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