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Sleaze, deception, Big Oil and the top two primary

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Ever since voters approved the switch to a top-two primary two years ago, political analysts have been predicting that interest groups typically aligned with one party would become more active in the other party's campaigns. The strategy is pragmatic: There are districts in which it is a virtual certainty that either a Democrat or Republican is going to win in November, so the primary presents an opportunity to support a candidate from the other party that the group finds more to its liking.

Fair enough. One could even argue that such a dynamic promotes one of the stated objectives of the top-two primary -- to advantage more moderate candidates from both parties. So if unions support a more moderate Republican running against a more conservative one, or if business groups support a more moderate Democrat against a more liberal one, perhaps that's a healthy thing.

What's unhealthy is when they do it deceptively, when they hide their true identity behind a distorted organizational name, and when they get involved in a primary in a way that is designed to manipulate the rules.

Meet the "California Senior Advocates League PAC." Already this month, it's done all three of those things.

Many voters in Ventura County may have already seen the $22,351 mailer this group sent out in support of Democratic 19th Senate District candidate Jason Hodge of Oxnard. Despite its name, this group has absolutely nothing to do with seniors, has no apparent concern for seniors issues, and uses that deceptive name only to hide its connection with the California Chamber of Commerce, Big Oil and the tobacco industry.

The largest contributor to the "Senior Advocates League PAC" is JOBSPAC, the political arm of the state Chamber of Commerce. Its two largest contributors are Chevron and Philip Morris.

The motivation for the PAC's support of Hodge would appear to be directly connected to the top two primary. Voter registration in the district strongly suggests a Democrat will prevail in November. That's why the chamber-supported PAC is backing Hodge now, rather than taking the more traditional tact of waiting until November to support Republican Mike Stoker.

Although the 19th District mailer is listed as a "support" piece for Hodge, it is just as much an attack on his Democratic opponent, former Assemblywoman Hannah-Beth Jackson. It reprises the "Taxin' Jackson" monicker that the campaign of Republican Sen. Tony Strickland sought to pin on her four years ago and describes her as "an offshore drilling consultant."

If that last description were actually true, Chevron would have no interest in spending money in an attempt to defeat her. The facts are that Jackson worked on behalf of the Environmental Defense Center -- one of the most respected environmental groups in Santa Barbara, and one that has effectively fought offshore drilling there for decades. The EDC supported a controversial proposal a few years ago that would have allowed the Texas oil company PXP to drill new wells in exchange for concessions that the environmental group believed would ultimately bring an end to offshore drilling off Santa Barbara -- principally, its agreement to dismantle the onshore processing facility it controlled. It was the EDC's belief, and Jackson's, that the agreement would have spelled the beginning of the end for offshore oil in Santa Barbara. Not every environmental organization agreed. That hardly makes Jackson an "offshore drilling consultant."

It is also interesting to note the "Senior Advocates League's" other activities in state Senate campaigns so far. It spent $32,000 on a mailer supporting former Assemblyman Joe Coto in the San Jose area, another Democrat generally more sympathetic to business special interests than his opponent, Assemblyman Jim Beall.

More cynically, it spent $35,000 on a mailer supporting a Republican candidate in central L.A. who has absolutely no chance of winning and has not even raised enough money for her own campaign to necessitate filing a report with the secretary of state. Republican Charlotte Svolos is running in a three-way primary that includes incumbent Democrat Rod Wright and another Democrat, a marginal candidate named Paul Butterfield.

Voter registration in that 35th District is 60.4 percent Democratic, 15.8 percent Republican -- so Svolos has zero chance of winning in November if she makes it out of the primary. Wright is chairman of the Senate Governmental Organization Committee, which deals with all bills regulating alcoholic beverages, and also a member of the Senate Energy, Utilities and Commerce Committee, which deals with all bills involving energy issues. The only potential threat to Wright's re-election would be if he is opposed by another Democrat on the November ballot.

So why would the Chevron-funded PAC support a token Republican candidate in a Senate race? The only explanation is to help Wright by trying to make sure Svolos gets enough votes in the primary to finish a distant second, but ahead of the other Democrat. The expenditure on Svolos' behalf is cynically manipulative.

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95 percent accurate
Over the last 25 presidential elections, Ventura County voters have backed the winner 24 times, or over 95 percent of the time. It is one of only a handful of counties in the nation that has been such a predictable bellwether.
about Timm Herdt
Timm Herdt
The Ventura County Star's Sacramento Bureau Chief Timm Herdt on state issues and politics from Sacramento to Ventura County. He can be contacted at therdt@vcstar.com
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