The Sacramento Bee: Connecting the donor dots in California outside spending campaigns

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By Jim Miller

Equality California’s name is synonymous with the years-long fight over civil rights for gay, lesbian, transgender and bisexual people, with the Los Angeles organization’s influence extending well beyond California.

But it’s dentists, energy companies and the real-estate industry that have donated much of the money for Equality California’s six-figure spending in a pair of legislative races on the June 7 ballot.

The organization has spent almost $190,000 to support Scott Wiener, a Democrat running for the San Francisco-based 11th Senate District, and $52,000 for Anna Caballero, a Democrat running in the Salinas-centered 30th Assembly District.

“They’ve become a pass-through for corporate-backed interests,” Eric Jaye, the political consultant for Jane Kim, Wiener’s Democratic rival, said of the group. Not true, countered Rick Zbur, Equality California’s executive director. “We do take money from business interests. We determine our endorsements independently,” he said.

As of midweek, more than 50 outside spending groups had pumped more than $19.5 million of TV ads, mailers and other advocacy into almost four dozen Assembly and Senate races on next month’s ballot.

But voters bombarded with the groups’ advocacy might have a hard time discerning who’s behind them, some of which feature blandly uplifting names such as the Coalition to Restore California’s Middle Class and Keep California Golden.

A relatively small collection of deep-pocketed trade groups, unions, businesses and wealthy individuals had provided almost all of the contributions to the 20 most active outside spending committees, state records show.

Chevron Corp., for example, has given to three of those groups. The California Dental Association has donated to two, as well as having its own outside spending committee. The California Charter Schools Association, besides having its own committee, has provided all of the money for the Parent Teacher Alliance.

A handful of wealthy individuals, meanwhile, have underwritten the heavy spending by the charter school group and Ed Voice, another organization that wants changes to the state education system. Southern California businessman Eli Broad and GAP co-founder Doris Fisher have donated in the seven figures to those groups.

Further obfuscating the flow of money, some outside spending committees donate money to each other. For example, the business-backed Californians for Jobs and a Strong Economy – which has spent almost $500,000 in legislative contests this spring – is among the top donors to Equality California’s political committee.

That has prompted the Kim campaign to tie Wiener to oil interests, a potentially effective message in gas-shunning San Francisco. State records show that Chevron donated $300,000 to the strong economy group on April 11 – the same day Equality California reported receiving $70,000 from the group. Equality California’s pro-Wiener spending began earlier this month.

“We don’t have any interaction with Chevron,” Zbur said. “We can’t know what (money) might go into a committee after we take it.”

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