News & Views from 465 California Street

Culture of Capitol-ism

Clint Reilly

Sacramento is not just a big small town or the capital of America’s biggest state. It is also a symbol of governmental gridlock and dysfunction, the political version of General Motors or Lehman Brothers.

But unlike GM or Lehman, California won’t go bankrupt – not while taxpayers are guarantors of last resort. So, the blunders continue.

Sacramento isn’t just a place; it’s a culture. Let’s call it a culture of “Capitol-ism.” Legislators are now “Capitolists” who commandeer billions of tax dollars and special interest contributions to re-elect themselves rather than govern California. The Capitol is no longer the seat of government – it is the home office of a massive 24/7 public relations company.

I first noticed this distorted reality when I began managing campaigns in the 1970s.

Incumbent Assembly members had access to a large pool of consultants on the state payroll whose primary job was to legally orchestrate year-round campaigns. The entity was called “Majority Consultants,” and the staffers really worked for the Speaker of the Assembly.

These political operatives manufactured press releases and cranked out expensive newsletters to constituents – paid for by the taxpayers. At election time, they exited the state payroll and seamlessly appeared on the campaign payrolls of members involved in tough races.

A crack team of in-house consultants hand- picked by the Speaker orchestrated centralized direct mail campaigns, designed and written in Sacramento. Sometimes the brochures would be exactly the same. Only the candidate’s name and geographic area was changed.

Major unions like the Operating Engineers owned presses that printed millions of brochures every election cycle for the Speaker’s chosen candidates. As time passed, television spots created by the same experts also began to flow out of Sacramento.

Special interests dominated campaign giving – even decades ago. Millions were raised from lobbyists, corporations, business groups and unions at watering holes like Frank Fat’s (a restaurant owned by a real life Frank Fat).

The Speaker and the Pro Tem of the State Senate both ran full-time fundraising campaigns, doling out cash selectively. In this system, elected members became dependent on the leadership to provide the money and political expertise for their election and re-election.

Power, therefore, resided in the hands of leaders who controlled committee assignments, staff allocations and perks such as office and parking spaces. But the leadership leaned heavily on special interests to put up the money that kept the machine humming.

By the end of the 1990s, the cost of campaigns had exploded, leveraging the role of special interests in Sacramento. Since November of 2001, Sacramento politicians have raised more than $1 billion for their campaigns, and independent committees have spent $88 million more to promote candidates.

Consequently, a massive parallel political consulting arm of the legislature has been deliberately created over generations – funded by taxpayers most of the year and by special interests during campaigns.

This monster manufactures bills that are nothing more than press releases driven by the latest polling data, which are never intended to actually become law. Major policy issues requiring solutions have become an opportunity to squeeze both sides for campaign funds at the price of legislative neutrality or inaction.

The government itself is now a subsidiary of this self-perpetuating campaign machine permanently disconnected from the core responsibility of good governance. California declines further.

Mediocre legislators cannot be defeated by reformers who lack the funds and connections in Sacramento to mount credible challenges. Needed change is blocked and delayed.

Experts say that a languishing company cannot be revived just by changing executives. Nor will we change Sacramento by electing a new governor, as the sagas of Gray Davis and Arnold Schwarzenegger have demonstrated. In order to transform a dying institution, the old, corrupt culture must be rooted out and eliminated.

Sacramento will never reform itself. The culture must be transformed fundamentally. Voting for new faces to play within the same broken system won’t accomplish that task. Only a Constitutional Convention that accomplishes true structural reform will break the back of the monster we’ve created.

We might then take our government back from the “Capitolists” and foster a new generation of leaders who are free to do the right thing, competent enough to know the right course, and tough enough to follow it.

Comments (10)

  • I read your column today with interest, and
    agree with your basic point that governing in Sacramento has become an
    industry more than a system of representative government. Our
    political system is dysfunctional and unaccountable, while our
    citizens act irresponsibly, making ever-increasing demands of the
    state while not wishing to pay for them. So the political culture
    needs to change for both politicians and citizens. I’ve seen our
    state deteriorate over the course of our lifetime, and I’d like to
    contribute to restoring our state to what it should be – a dynamic
    engine of economic growth and opportunity for people from all over the
    country and the world. What’s the best way to get involved, in your

    Thanks for your concern and actions for our state.
    John F

    Posted by: John F. | July 21st, 2009 at 12:05 pm

  • Now is the time for a Constitutional Convention.

    I nominate you as the Chairman of the “Take Back Sacramento” campaign.

    If Schwartzenager can be put in with that riduculous campaign to rid us of Davis it must be possible to do something this sensible to change our constitution and our structue of government.

    Obviously the campaign would have to seem to benefit everyone. If the machine makers of Orange County find the least flaw the project has no chance.

    But, what we have to worry about is that the WRONG people would take over the convention and we would end up with a worse system than what we have now.

    Plus, I think The People of the State interests are so conflicted that probably any convention, once called, would be stalemated the way Sacramento is now.

    But, it is absolutely required that we DO something to change this awful arrangement
    we have now.

    Would you explore possibilities how this could be done?



    Posted by: Larry | July 21st, 2009 at 12:06 pm

  • I went to graduate school in Washington DC and got to watch the ‘inside the beltway’ crowd there at first hand. It was all a sham.

    Jesse Helms and Teddy Kennedy would rail against one another on the floor of the Senate – you’d see them that night drinking together in a Georgetown bar with a couple of interns young enough to be their grandaughters. Next day they’d be in the same foursome playing golf at the Army-Navy Club or the Bethesda golf and country club.

    Doesn’t matter if they are repub or dem, lib or conservative. They consider themselves an aristocracy and all care about each other far more than they will ever care about you or me.

    Posted by: George H. | July 21st, 2009 at 12:08 pm

  • Your column calling for a Constitutional Convention sounds reasonable enough, but it assumes you can guarantee that the convention participants will be morally superior to the politicians they are trying to replace.

    You say you’ll change the constitution

    Well you know

    We all want to change your head

    — Lennon & McCartney, “Revolution”

    Posted by: Lennon & McCartney | July 21st, 2009 at 1:08 pm

  • You are 100 percent correct on the need for fundamental reform of CA
    government. I would be very interested in participating in any such
    effort you are putting together or can recommend. Let me know.

    Posted by: J.M.T. | July 21st, 2009 at 4:51 pm

  • I would love to see your keep the idea of a constitutional
    convention alive in future columns. How would it be convened, who
    would go, what mischief or unintended outcomes could occur.
    In the meantime, how about porposing a proposition that stops paying
    elected legislative and executive leader and their appointees salaries
    and expenses whwnever the state doesn’t have a balanced budget by
    July1, or whenver it issues IOU’s in lieu of payment to any other
    creditor. And prevents subsequent retroactive payment.
    In other words some consequences to them for their irresponible
    behaviour and violations of laws and regs.

    Posted by: Arthur D. | July 22nd, 2009 at 9:09 am

  • A “right on” article in the Tuesday, July 21 Marin Independent Journal! We’ve
    thought your thoughts for quite some time now. Question…. how do we bring about a Constitutional Convention? I suspect that powerful group in Sacramento would squelch the idea PDQ. …….perhaps another article from you addressing this topic?

    …Always look forward to reading your column.

    Posted by: Ann | July 22nd, 2009 at 9:10 am

  • Just want you to know that I read your messages regularly and believe your suggestion for a constitutional convention for California is correct.
    District seats must be made far less secure so that office holders need
    concern themselves with people more to the right( Democrats)and left (
    Republicans) rather than the I must confess that reverse as is the case
    now. ( By the way I have been active in politics since ’48 ( for Truman in
    Oregon) Douglas ( in California ’50) and up to the present. I I must
    confess that I supported Jeff Cohelan over Dellums way back in 1970, I believe.

    Only a majority of the legislature should then be require for passing the
    budget Let a independent commission determine the boundary of districts etc.
    Maybe then we Could get rid of term limits ( and maybe some day get rid of proposition 13.

    Any way so much for dreaming.
    Keep up your good work,

    Posted by: Frits | July 22nd, 2009 at 2:34 pm

  • your recent observations are right on. The culture MUST transfom.
    Drastically. Society is fragmented, virtually impossible to find common
    gound. Education, education, education. Very complicated. I despair of my
    own grandchildren
    john s

    Posted by: john s | July 23rd, 2009 at 9:47 am

  • I have known for a long time that legislators, both Federal and State, spend an inordinate amount of time collecting money to be re-elected. Your article “Culture of Capitol-ism” which ran in the Contra Costa Times on July 21, shocked me when I learned the extent of the problem.

    I thought at one time that the solution might be to vote out all of the incumbents, which might alleviate the problem for a while because the new crooks would have to learn the system at which the old crooks were expert, but it would not be permanent.

    You mentioned that a Constitutional Convention might accomplish reform. What would be involved to convene such a convention, and how would it be structured to accomplish the planned goal?



    Posted by: Ray | July 27th, 2009 at 9:29 am

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