Claremont Insider: The Real Cost of Patronage

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

The Real Cost of Patronage

Will Bigham had a follow-up to the Xavier Alvarez story. Bigham's article originally appeared in the Daily Bulletin this past weekend and also appeared in the Whittier Daily News.

Alvarez is the Three Valleys Municipal Water District board member who, among other things, falsely claimed he was a Medal of Honor recipient and who is accused of obtaining health benefits for an ex-wife through Three Valleys, an act that could result in a felony charge against Alvarez.

The article quoted Claremont McKenna College political scientist Jack Pitney, who observed that candidates for higher office receive much more scrutiny than those on the local level:

"If he had been running for the state Legislature, or Congress, opposition researchers would have found this information very quickly," said Jack Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College.

"It's not hard to find out, for instance, that someone is not on the list of Medal of Honor winners. That's public information.

"But when you run for a low-level office, you often don't have to worry about opposition researchers."

Of course, here in Claremont, the Preserve Claremont arm of the Claremont 400 researches candidates pretty well and publishes those findings in full-page ads the Claremont Courier. So, we have a safeguard here, even if the 400's findings are fabricated.

Pomona Mayor Norma Torres, whose endorsement of Alvarez during his 2006 campaign was a key to Alvarez defeating incumbent Luis Juarez. Torres' defense of her endorsement was that Alvarez was the only one of the two candidates to approach her for an endorsement.

As we've point out in the past, we suspect there's more to the Torres endorsement than a simple favor to the first person in line. Like Vito Corleone in the Francis Ford Coppola movie "The Godfather," certain types of politicians love to build loyalty networks through patronage. Those pyramidal networks depend on stocking the lower tiers with weaker, more pliable people dependent on the largesse of the person at the top.

Call it multi-level marketing; call it a pyramid scheme.

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Of course, Pitney's supposition that higher office automatically guarantees higher levels of scrutiny doesn't take into account the timelag factor. It can take news media years to catch onto some stories.

Nancy Vogel in a series of articles in the Los Angeles Times in October and November has focused her attention on California Assembly Speaker Fabian Núñez (D-Los Angeles). Núñez is a 1997 Pitzer grad with degrees in political science and education.

In October, Vogel wrote about Núñez's junkets to Europe, paid for by your tax dollars, which Núñez defends by saying that he's doing the people's work on those sorts of trips, generating trade with Spanish and Italian companies.

Those work trips, naturally, get expensive, what with the dollar at an all-time low against the euro and all, which probably explains the $5,149 meeting cost at wine merchant Cave L'Avant Garde near Bordeaux, France. Of course, the $2,562 in shopping trips for "office expenses" at Louis Vuitton are harder explain.

Last Friday, Vogel had an article about Núñez's use of a charity called Collective Space to raise money from special interests. The article went on to say that Nuñez personally directed some of the charity's expenditures. By donating to a non-profit, the interest groups and individuals were able to give more than the $7,200 limit that would have applied to donations to Nuñez's own campaign fund. And, the donors could deduct the money because it went to a charity:

Those donors include Zenith Insurance Co., AT&T, Verizon Communications Inc., the California Hospital Assn., the state prison guards union, Pacific Gas & Electric Co. and Blue Cross of California -- all groups with high stakes in legislation.

The money was used for events including "Assembly Speaker Fabian Nuñez's Toy Drive," "Assembly Speaker Fabian Nuñez's Soccerfest 2006," "Assembly Speaker Fabian Nuñez's Inaugural Legislative Youth Conference" and airplane flights for 50 children from Nuñez's district for "Assembly Speaker Fabian Nuñez's Sacramento Student Summit," according to state documents.

According to Vogel's article, the amounts run through Collective Space totaled almost $300,000. The charity, was suspended as a non-profit corporation by California officials for failing to file tax returns.

Is this really a bad thing, though? Didn't the money go to a good cause? Yesterday, an LA Times editorial titled "Patronage for Sale" put the entire matter into context. The editors write:
It's great that kids got iPods and airline tickets. It's not so great that his office, rather than the charity,dictated what events his corporate and labor donors paid for, or that they were advertised as "Assembly Speaker Fabian Nuñez's Toy Drive," "Assembly Speaker Fabian Nuñez's Soccerfest 2006" and "Assembly Speaker Fabian Nuñez's Inaugural Legislative Youth Conference." The speaker, and the many lawmakers who engage in similar practices, stand on the wrong side of the line that divides conscientious constituent support and blatant, discredited political patronage.

We see this all the time here in Claremont. Look at all the fine charities and non-profits in town: the Claremont Community Foundation, the Claremont Educational Foundation, Uncommon Good, the League of Women Voters, and others all doing good works, yet all being used as resume builders for up-and-coming, ambitious Claremont 400 candidates. At that point, you have to question the reason for the good works and the sincerity with which they are done.

This sort of behavior is scalable, occurring at every level of government and on both sides of the political aisle. And lest Republicans begin to gloat at Nuñez's unmasking, the right is just as guilty of peddling favors. People in glass houses, you know.

Which leaves all of the rest of us out in the cold. All those special interest donations, whether $1,000 or $10,000, or whatever, amount to bits of sand and gravel in our governmental works, adding friction bit by bit to decision-making, until the whole thing seizes up.

Is it really any wonder, whether we're talking about the Claremont City Council, the California legislature, or the U.S. Congress, that things have come unmoored, and the average citizen has little or no connection with those doing the governing and that voter participation rates have fallen (29 percent in the last City Council election, even lower in today's school board vote)?

Voter disaffection and alienation are side effects of the patronage business, and community engagement continues to erode in the face of an ethically challenged political process. We can, like Fabian Nuñez, pretend that there's nothing wrong with this, that it's just a cost of doing business, but we here at the Insider are more inclined to trust T. S. Eliot, who had Thomas à Becket say to his tempters in "Murder in the Cathedral,"

The last temptation is the greatest treason:
To do the right deed for the wrong reason.