CA's Big Political Spenders Of The Decade

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A short but powerful snapshot this morning from the state's political watchdog agency reveals an awful lot about the movers and shakers in California politics this past ten years.

But given it's supposed to be a snapshot of an entire decade, it also serves as a reminder of how fast some of the current big fishes in campaign bucks have made their mark.

The state's Fair Political Practices Commission put out a 'Top 10' list today of the biggest individual contributors to candidates and ballot measures between 2000 and the end of 2009. These ten individuals forked over a combined $266.2 million for various causes and campaigns... some successfully, some wildly unsuccessful.

Drumroll, please, as we stroll down Memory Lane...

10. Bill Simon - $10,308,214: The 2002 Republican gubernatorial nominee serves as a bit of historical perspective on what used to be a wealthy GOP statewide candidate before the days of an Austrian-born celebrity and an eBay whiz. Simon, even after running what some complained was a less-than-stellar campaign, still came within five points of knocking off Gov. Gray Davis in the general election.

Getty Images

Photo: Getty Images

9. Reed Hastings - $13,412,315: If you've ever rented a movie from Netflix, you've been part of this multimillionaire's world. The 49-year-old Silicon Valley VIP later turned his attention to education issues and charter schools in particular, once calling K-12 education "the last big government monopoly in America." Hastings was appointed to the State Board of Education in 2000 and subsequently got involved in ballot measure campaigns on education issues, hence the big campaign bucks noted here. In 2005, Hastings lost his spot on the state board after a spat about bilingual education. Hastings wrote checks totaling more than $500,000 for political efforts in 2009, including donations in the maximum amount to the still-not-official gubernatorial campaign of Jerry Brown.

8. John Doerr - $15,347,847: It's appropriate that Doerr is side-by-side with Hastings on this Top Ten list, as the Silicon Valley venture capitalist teamed with Hastings to both help create the advocacy organization EdVoice and bankroll Proposition 39 in 2000 that lowered the threshold for local school bond passage. But unlike Hastings, Doerr has chosen a much lower profile in politics, at least before becoming a member of President Barack Obama's Economic Recovery Advisory Board.

7. Angelo Tsakopoulos - $15,795,379: When it comes to this wealthy donor, you can sum up most of the money that landed him in this spot in two words... Phil Angelides. The 2006 Democratic candidate for governor is a protege of Tsakopoulos, and relied on his close relationship with the Sacramento developer to help fund both his win in the Democratic primary for guv four years ago and his subsequent losing race in the general election. Almost $11 million of his political spending happened just in 2006.

Getty Images

Photo: Getty Images

6. Meg Whitman - $19,642,200: You don't have to say much about this one. The current Republican gubernatorial wannabe wasn't even on the California political radar until launching her bid for the state's top job last year and, so far, providing a massive amount of personal money for her campaign. You can bet that she's going to end up much, much higher on this list by the end of 2010 (she's already plopped down another big chunk of cash since the new year began).

5. Jerry Perenchio - $23,267,738: The former chairman of Univision became a household name only when, thanks to big bucks contributions, his name was required to be listed at the bottom of lots of TV ads for Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's many ballot campaigns -- including the disastrous 2005 special election. Of course, Perenchio was involved in California politics long before Schwarzenegger arrived, with big donations on both sides of the aisle, and it's likely he'll keep on writing checks even after Arnold packs his bags (he's already a donor to the candidate at #6 on this list).

4. Arnold Schwarzenegger - $25,871,398: We'll make this entry short, as it doesn't require much explanation for anyone who's been following state politics these last six years. Suffice it to say that the governor has rewritten the playbook for governors who find themselves unwilling to wait for the Legislature to take "action, action, action."

3. Steve Westly - $41,728,277: In campaign cash stories, Westly is (for now) tops when it comes to self-financing candidates that came up short -- the 2006 Democratic candidate for governor who failed to win his party's nomination after spending beaucoup bucks. That race was a long ways from his win four years earlier as state controller, which made Westly an instant up-and-comer in California Democratic politics. But his decision to work alongside the insurgent Republican governor in 2004 put his gubernatorial effort two years later at a bit of a disadvantage with some party loyalists. And he spent an awful lot of money thereafter, only to lose by four points to Angelides. Many have wondered whether Westly would return to state politics, but other than some campaigning with Schwarzenegger for redistricting reform in 2008, he's laid relatively low.

2. Steve Poizner - $43,205,282: If you only heard of Steve Poizner recently, you'd wonder why his gubernatorial rival Whitman's personal campaign spending is getting so much attention. After all, Poizner's spent more than Whitman on politics, right? But political junkies remember that the Silicon Valley whiz-turned-insurance commissioner can thank his spot on this list, in part, to setting the record for self-financing of an Assembly race in 2004 in a losing effort to Bay Area Democrat Ira Ruskin. In that race, he spent more than $6.2 million. Add to money spent to win his current statewide office, plus money spent defeating the controversial term limits tweak Proposition 93, plus the $19.2 million he's spent on the current guv's race... and there you are.

Getty Images

Photo: Getty Images

1. Steve Bing - $58,050,783: One of the most publicity-shy players in California politics also comes out on top as the Daddy Warbucks of campaign contributions. (By the way, what's up with the Top 3 on this list all being named "Steve"?)

The 44-year-old businessman and Hollywood producer has been a constant writer of checks to Democratic and liberal causes over the past decade, and the above total doesn't even include his spending on national politics. Bing made a big splash in a losing effort to help pass the alternative energy measure Proposition 87 in 2006... where his final tally was somewhere north of $32 million. While it doesn't appear he's donated state money in this election cycle yet, a review of years past reads like a Who's Who of Democratic party candidates and causes.

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About John Myers

John Myers is senior editor of KQED's new California Politics & Government Desk. He has covered California politics for most of the past two decades, serving previously as Sacramento bureau chief for KQED News and most recently as political editor for KXTV News10 (ABC) in Sacramento. In 2014, he was named one of the nation's top statehouse reporters by The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @johnmyers.
  • Milan Moravec

    Shortsighted. Short. Spineless.Current Threats to University of California Don’t Come From the Outside – $3 Million Spending by UC President Yudof for University of California Berkeley Chancellor Birgeneau to Hire Consultants – When Work Can Be Done Internally & Impartially
    During the days of the Great Recession, every dollar in higher education counts. Contact Chairwoman Budget Sub-committee on Education Finance Assemblywoman Carter 916.319.2062 – tell her to stop the $3,000,000 spending by Birgeneau on consultants.
    Do the work internally at no additional costs with UCB Academic Senate Leadership (C. Kutz/F. Doyle), the world – class professional UCB faculty/ staff, & the UCB Chancellor’s bloated staff (G. Breslauer, N. Brostrom, F. Yeary, P. Hoffman, C. Holmes etc) & President Yudof.
    President Yudof’s UCB Chancellor should do the high paid work he is paid for instead of hiring expensive East Coast consults to do the work of his job. ‘World class’ smart executives like Chancellor Birgeneau need to do the hard work analysis, and make the tough-minded difficult, decisions to identify inefficiencies.
    Where do the $3,000,000 consultants get their recommendations?
    From interviewing the UCB senior management that hired them and approves their monthly consultant fees and expense reports. Remember the nationally known auditing firm who said the right things and submitted recommendations that senior management wanted to hear and fooled the public, state, federal agencies?
    $3 million impartial consultants never bite the hands (Chancellor Birgeneau/ Chancellor Yeary) that feed them!
    Mr. Birgeneau’s accountabilities include “inspiring innovation, leading change.” Instead of deploying his leadership and setting a good example by doing the work of his Chancellor’s job, Birgeneau outsourced his work to the $3,000,000 consultants. Doesn’t he engage UC and UC Berkeley people at all levels to examine inefficiencies and recommend $150 million of trims? Hasn’t he talked to Cornell and the University of North Carolina – which also hired the consultants — about best practices and recommendations that eliminate inefficiencies?
    No wonder the faculty, staff, students, Senate & Assembly are angry and suspicious.
    In today’s Great Recession three million dollars is a irresponsible price to pay when a knowledgeable ‘world-class’ UCB Chancellor and his bloated staff do not do the work of their jobs.
    Pick up the phone and call: save $3 million for students!

  • http://BigspenderUCBChancellorBirgeneaulossofcredibility Transparency

    UCB Chancellor Birgeneau Loss of Trust
    The UCB budget gap has grown to $150 million, and still the Chancellor is spending money that isn’t there on expensive outside consultants. His reasons range from the need for impartiality to requiring the “innovative thinking, expertise, and new knowledge” the consultants would bring.

    Does this mean that the faculty and management of a world-class research and teaching institution lack the knowledge, impartiality, innovation, and professionalism to come up with solutions? Have they been fudging their research for years? The consultants will glean their recommendations from interviewing faculty and the UCB management that hired them; yet solutions could be found internally if the Chancellor were doing the job HE was hired to do. Consultant fees would be far better spent on meeting the needs of students.

    There can be only one conclusion as to why creative solutions have not been forthcoming from the professionals within UCB: Chancellor Birgeneau has lost credibility and the trust of the faculty as well as of the Academic Senate leadership that represents them. Even if the faculty agrees with the consultants’ recommendations – disagreeing might put their jobs in jeopardy – the underlying problem of lost credibility and trust will remain.