Statistical analysis shows a correlation between contributions by new legislators and the committee chairmanships they receive.
By Brian Joseph
Capitol Watchdog column
The Orange County Register
January 26, 2007
SACRAMENTO– Orange County lawmaker Jose Solorio raised some eyebrows in December when he was named chairman of the Assembly Public Safety Committee.
A rookie legislator, Solorio lacks the sort of background you might expect of the law enforcement chairman. He ran this fall on an education platform, touting his public policy degree from Harvard and encouraging Latinos to learn English. His slogan was "The Education Candidate."
"The only qualification that I see is that he had a lot of money to spread around," said political watchdog Doug Heller of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights.
Indeed, Solorio, D-Santa Ana, was among the Democrats' top contributors in the freshman class, giving more than $92,000 to party causes.
Solorio told me the money is merely a byproduct of the political talents that earned him a chairmanship. That may be true. But an analysis of posts awarded to Assembly Democrats since 2000 shows freshmen who give more money are also more likely to get fancy titles in their very first year in Sacramento.
In Congress, seniority rules, so no freshmen would ever wield the gavel. But Sacramento is ruled by term limits – and money.
So nobody denies contributions influence decisions like this, not even Steve Maviglio, deputy chief of staff for the guy making the decisions. Maviglio said his boss, Assembly Speaker Fabian Nuñez, D-Los Angeles, might reasonably look at contributions as a sign of loyalty or political acumen, but only after considering other factors, such as experience.
I looked at the numbers and, with the assistance of Professor Esmael Adibi of Chapman University, I found that for freshmen Assembly Democrats there's a real, statistical link between money and power.
That does not mean only big contributors receive jobs, and it doesn't mean money alone drives the decision. Correlation isn't the same as causation.
But it does mean it's no coincidence that every freshman Assembly Democrat who gave more than $110,000 since 2000 also received a fancy title in their first year.
"These are politicians who gain power by paying into the political kitty," said Heller, the political watchdog.
Chairmanships and leadership positions such as majority whip and assistant speaker pro tem have real value to legislators – they come with additional budgets and staff. The last Public Safety chairman, Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, controlled a personal budget of $268,000 plus a committee budget of $842,000.
The jobs also can enrich political campaigns. Some committees are lobbied hard by wealthy interests with money to burn. One such "juice committee" is Assembly Business and Professions. Its chairman these days is freshman Assemblyman Mike Eng, D-Monterey Park.
"Committee chairs can command more (campaign) contributions because everybody knows they set the agenda on bills," said Barbara O'Connor, a professor in Cal State Sacramento's Communication Studies department.
Eng gave more than $192,000 to Democratic causes in 2006, the most of any Assembly freshman.
Solorio's chairmanship is considered a bit of a double-edged sword. It's a good job because it's high profile, especially this year with prison reform on the agenda. But Democratic leaders might force him to kill tough-on-crime bills, making him an easy target for Republicans at re-election time.
Solorio is excited. He couldn't get the Education Committee – it was already chaired by a more senior member – but he told me he's interested in public safety because gangs have been a problem in Santa Ana. Plus, he noted, previous Public Safety chairmen have moved on to take powerful positions in the Legislature.
"I'll be in the eye of the hurricane," Solorio said. "But that's where you want to be, where the action is."