The Attorney General’s Taxpayer-Funded Political Advertising

We hate to pick on Attorney General Rob Bonta two weeks in a row, but he’s really given us no choice. Last week we chronicled his hypocrisy on data privacy by posturing as a champion on that issue while negligently allowing his Department of Justice to release sensitive information on Californians who hold carry concealed weapons permits.

What spurred today’s critique was an article in the Sacramento Bee with the headline, “Why is California’s Attorney General spending taxpayer money to send you emails?” First, a hat tip to the Sacramento Bee – typically no friend of conservatives – and its reporter Ryan Sabalow.

The article reports that two months before the June primary election, millions of California voters received an email from Bonta’s Department of Justice with the subject line, “I want to hear from you.” The message was from an official email account and said, “As Attorney General, protecting California and its people is my highest priority” and “your opinion truly matters to me.”

Those receiving the email might have wondered what it was all about. After all, it is unusual to receive an unsolicited email from a state agency unless you’ve opted in to remain informed on a particular topic.

But it’s really no mystery at all. Prior to the primary election, Bonta was serving as the appointed, but unelected, Attorney General. No doubt that his name ID wasn’t very high, and he was willing to do anything possible to elevate his profile. That’s one reason he directed his staff – shortly after his appointment – to include his smiling visage on these email solicitations to as many as 7 million voters.

The Bee article, citing several sources, accurately notes that what Bonta did was technically legal, even if ethically questionable. Indeed, the question of the extent to which elected officials or government agencies expend taxpayer dollars for political advocacy or “self-promotion” is one that the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association gets a lot. In fact, our Public Integrity Project was formed precisely to monitor and to litigate when necessary illegal expenditures of public funds for illegal activity.

Fortunately, HJTA has had a string of successes in the courtroom including an action against the County of Los Angeles for producing a slick television ad advocating the passage of a sales tax to address homelessness. That action resulted in a $1.3 million fine against the county. Other successful legal actions include a suit against California’s then-Secretary of State, Alex Padilla, for spending an unauthorized $35 million contract with a politically connected public relations firm that referred to itself as “Team Biden” on its own website, ostensibly for nonpartisan “voter outreach” and public education.

The bad news is that there is a very high bar to prove illegality when it comes to public expenditures for non-election-related public relations campaigns. Rarely will an elected official or government entity be so foolish to use taxpayer funds for ads that say “Vote for Me” or “Vote for Measure X.”

But just because “outreach” communications, such as those emails sent by Bonta, may be technically legal, that doesn’t mean that they are ethically defensible. The attorney general is responsible for enforcing the law against other Californians. It looks pretty bad for him to skirt the law himself.

Click here to read the full article at the OC Register

Trump’s Political Vulnerabilities Mount

SIOUX CENTER, Iowa — Stunning new revelations about former President Trump’s fight to overturn the 2020 election have exposed growing political vulnerabilities just as he eyes another presidential bid.

A former White House aide last week described Trump as an unhinged leader with no regard for the safety of elected officials in either party as he clung to power on Jan. 6, 2021. The testimony from the congressional panel investigating the Capitol attack provided a road map for prosecutors to potentially charge Trump with a crime, some legal experts say.

Republican voters — and Trump’s would-be rivals in the 2024 presidential race — took notice.

Here in Iowa, the state expected to host the first presidential nominating contest in roughly 18 months, several voters signaled Thursday that they were open to another presidential candidate even if Trump were to run again. Nationally, some conservative media outlets issued scathing rebukes of the former president, and aides for multiple GOP presidential prospects indicated, publicly and privately, that they felt increasingly emboldened to challenge Trump in 2024 after the explosive new testimony.

Nikki Haley, Trump’s ambassador to the United Nations, drew roughly 350 conservative activists to a congressional fundraising barbecue on Thursday in Sioux County, where Trump won 82% of the vote in 2020.

There was ample evidence of Trump fatigue. Interviews with a dozen attendees revealed strong interest in a 2024 alternative, even if Trump is on the ballot.

“You’d be hard-pressed to find people in this area who support the idea that people aren’t looking for someone else,” said Dave Van Wyk, a transportation company owner. “To presume that conservative America is 100% behind Donald Trump is simply not the case.”

Former White House staffer Cassidy Hutchinson on Tuesday offered previously unknown details about the extent of Trump’s rage in his final weeks of office, his awareness that some supporters had brought weapons to the city on Jan. 6 and his ambivalence as rioters later laid siege to the Capitol.

Upset at the size of the crowd at his “Stop the Steal” rally — many supporters avoided entering because they were armed and didn’t want to go through metal detectors — Trump said words to the effect of, “I don’t care that they have weapons. They’re not here to hurt me,” according to Hutchinson. She recalled hearing about a separate incident after the rally in which Trump tried to grab at the steering wheel of the presidential vehicle to go to the Capitol to join his supporters.

That detail has caused some pushback. The agent who was driving the vehicle and another official were reportedly prepared to testify under oath that Trump never lunged for the wheel.

But the renewed concern was evident.

The conservative Washington Examiner’s editorial board said Hutchinson’s testimony “ought to ring the death knell” for Trump’s political career. “Trump is unfit to be anywhere near power ever again.”

The often Trump-friendly New York Post blasted the headline “Tyrant Trump.” And the conservative editorial page of the Wall Street Journal wrote, “Just when it seems as if Donald Trump’s behavior after his 2020 loss couldn’t possibly look worse, a new piece of wild testimony arrives.”

To be sure, conservatives have shared serious concerns about Trump repeatedly in recent years. And in every case, the former president has emerged largely unscathed, sometimes stronger. He has been caught on video bragging about sexual assault; he instigated a violent attack on the Capitol; and he has been impeached twice.

Trump is sitting on campaign funds that exceed $101 million and remains deeply popular with many Republican voters. Lest there be any question, Republican candidates in states including Arizona, Pennsylvania and Georgia have been battling one another this midterm season for his support.

“The American people remain hungry for his leadership,” Trump spokesperson Taylor Budowich said, citing Trump’s strong endorsement record and fundraising success. “And as another witch hunt is blowing up in the faces of Democrats, President Trump is in a stronger position now than at any time before.”

But even before last week’s revelations, a new poll from the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found that 48% of U.S. adults say Trump should be charged with a crime for his role in the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.

Views on Trump’s criminal liability break down predictably along party lines, with 86% of Democrats and 10% of Republicans saying Trump should be charged. Still, the fact that nearly half the country believes he should be prosecuted is a remarkable position for the former president, pointing to the difficulties he could face if he makes another run at the White House.

Trump reported raising nearly $9 million in March and April combined. Figures for May and June were not yet available, but aides to the former president say his fundraising has remained strong.

Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, eyeing a presidential bid in 2024, says he was hearing concerns about Trump from donors and voters alike before last week’s testimony, which adds to the “cumulative weight” of the former president’s political shortcomings.

“People are concerned that we could lose the election in ’24 and want to make sure that we don’t nominate someone who would be seriously flawed,” Christie said.

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, who is also considering a 2024 run, said he considers Trump beatable in a GOP primary even if Republican voters aren’t paying close attention to the congressional hearings, as he suspects.

“His approval among Republican primary voters has already been somewhat diminished,” Hogan said. “Trump was the least popular president in American history until Joe Biden.”

Aides for other Republican presidential prospects said privately that Trump may still be the overwhelming favorite to win the next GOP presidential nomination, but they believe his standing with Republican voters has been in steady decline. There was a broad sense — or at least a hope — that Hutchinson’s testimony would accelerate that decline among voters and donors in a way that would open opportunities for others.

Marc Short, a senior advisor to former Vice President Mike Pence, another likely 2024 presidential contender, was blunt when asked about Trump’s political strength.

“Republican activists believed Donald Trump was the only candidate who could beat Hillary,” Short said. “Now the dynamic is reversed. He is the only one who has lost to Joe Biden.”

Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney, who serves on the Jan. 6 commission and has not ruled out a 2024 presidential bid, cast Trump as a direct threat to American democracy in a Wednesday night speech at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library.

“Republicans cannot both be loyal to Donald Trump and loyal to the Constitution. We must choose,” she said.

Haley, who has said she would not seek the 2024 GOP nomination if Trump ran, declined to say Thursday whether the testimony has given her reason to rethink that plan.

Instead, she sounded an upbeat note.

Click here to read the full article in the LA Times

Money Wars: Special Interests Spend Big In California Primary

If you haven’t noticed, your mail carrier certainly has: Election season has arrived in California and with it, the regular flood of political ads from unions, corporations and other special interest groups hoping to influence your vote.

Though contributions made directly to political candidates are capped by state law, no such limits apply to “independent expenditure” committees — so long as those outside influences are, in fact, independent and don’t coordinate with the campaigns they’re trying to help. 

With early voting already underway and just two weeks to go before the June 7 primary, millions of dollars of help is now inundating California, showing up in races up and down the ballot. Perhaps you’ve driven past a curious bobble-headed billboard, had your mailbox stuffed with mailers sponsored by innocuous-sounding neighborhood groups or been puzzled by campaign ads that seem to be promoting the wrong candidate

That’s all the handwork of what California election watchers refer to simply as “I.E.”

Though independent political spending is still dwarfed in California by old-fashioned direct contributions to candidates, it can play an outsized role in competitive elections, said Ann Ravel, who has served as the top campaign finance watchdog for both the state of California and the federal government. As an unsuccessful Democratic candidate for state Senate in one of 2020’s most fiercely competitive legislative races, she knows from first-hand experience. 

“When you see it in person, it’s a lot different than when you see it as a regulator,” said Ravel, whose South Bay race against fellow Democrat Dave Cortese became a $6.2 million proxy battle between organized labor groups, housing interests and tech companies including Uber and Lyft. “I remember thinking, ‘Oh God, now I have to go to all these meetings with all these people and suck up to them?’” 

Unlike relatively small individual contributions, six-figure spending by a single interest group in a close race can be difficult for a candidate to ignore, she said. “You have to be able to compete…I think that’s the problem.”

Another common feature of independent expenditure committees, said Claremont McKenna College political science professor Jack Pitney, is that they most often play the role of bad cop, attacking candidates they want to knock off. 

“It provides a certain degree of cover to the candidate who benefits,” he said. “They can’t be accused of going negative.”

Even for seasoned politicos and election reporters, the rivers of cash can be complicated to track — and sometimes even convoluted to make sense of. For the fascinated, outraged or perplexed voter, consider this your user’s guide. 

Shades of blue

Accounting and financial oversight doesn’t always inflame political passions, but the race to become California’s next controller is shaping up to be among the most competitive statewide races. With five well-financed candidates — four of them Democrats — and no clear front-runner, it’s a remarkably open race. Just in terms of money raised by the campaigns, themselves, it’s the highest-dollar statewide race. 

The conventional wisdom is that Lanhee Chen, the lone Republican, will snag one of the two spots for the November ballot. That leaves the four Democrats fighting for the second spot.  

Enter JobsPAC, an IE committee sponsored by the California Chamber of Commerce. 

“The race for a spot in the general election is a jump ball between the four major Democratic candidates — each start with limited name ID and no statewide bully pulpit for communications,” reads a strategic memo produced by the committee earlier this month. 

Click here to read the full article in CalMatters