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Thursday, June 7, 2007 | A few decades ago, led by the mayor who still gives some San Diegans goose bumps — Pete Wilson — the City Council pushed through campaign contribution limits for the first time.

Residents were fed up with scandals, the origins of which were attributed to a lack of controls over campaign financing.

Since then, the contribution limits have hardly changed. A person can give $320 to a candidate for city attorney or mayor and $270 to a council candidate per election. In 1974, it was $250. That was worth a lot more back then. The low limit was bound to be usurped and, ironically, it was an event held in 2005 to honor Wilson that probably celebrated the beginning of the end of the effort to regulate how much money can flow to campaigns from big donors.

And we’re only now coming to terms with it.

It was September 2005, just as the campaign to replace Mayor Dick Murphy was hitting its most intense stride. The local Republican Party hosted an event billed as a “Salute to Republican Elected Officials” with Wilson as the guest of honor.

But the event’s true purpose was not to salute Republican officials — it was to crown more of them.

It was a fundraiser of rather historic proportions for San Diego.

To put some perspective on what happened, let’s do this: Mayor Jerry Sanders recently absorbed a fair amount of flak from critics chiding him for not remembering — and potentially being influenced by — a fundraiser during his campaign that netted him $3,600 from a controversial developer and his friends.

That’s just a pile of pennies compared to the “Salute to Republican Elected Officials.” The event raised contributions and pledges in excess of $800,000. Several hundred thousand would eventually flow to support Sanders’ campaign.

If someone showed up with a $3,000 contribution to this shindig, they might have gotten a “that’s nice” with a half smile and a nod. It might actually, in fact, have been forgettable. There were much bigger checks being written.

The Lodging Industry Association — spearheaded by hotelier C. Terry Brown — gave $65,000 to the Republican Party shortly after the “Salute.”

McMillin Management Services gave $45,000. Barratt American Homes gave $25,000. Hotelier Doug Manchester’s Manchester Resorts gave $95,000 altogether in 2005. The list of contributors is long.

A re-engineering of state laws in 2002 had made it clear there were no limits to how much money local political parties could accept from single sources. Suddenly, the law that capped individual donations — and their possible corrupting influence — was avoidable.

And when both Democratic and Republican operatives around the state realized that their parties could use that money to “communicate” with their members, local restrictions on campaign contributions met their match.

Many people are only now realizing that the system of fundraising that operates underneath the $270 limit on donations is on its way to becoming to San Diego politics what the buffet is to Las Vegas casino owners. It’s a supplement, a necessary sustenance mechanism for your effort, but not where you’re going to make your big bucks.

The big bucks are flowing through a system that could not possibly have a more boring name given its rising significance: member communications.

Political consultants across the state are working furiously to entrench it.

Democrats and Republicans in California may not be able to agree on the color of the sky most days, but they are working together right now, like well-choreographed Chippendale dancers, to pass legislation that would prohibit cities like San Diego from passing any kind of restrictions on donations to political parties. Those are the donations that fuel member communications.

The deal is simple in concept but extraordinarily complicated in practice. Like the buffet, it may be easy to figure out how the line works, but damned if you know what’s in that casserole.

We live in a free country. And one of the tenets of a free land is that a political party must be allowed to communicate with its members. A government should not interfere with the messages a party would like to send to its members. If it did, that would be scary.

If you filled out a voter registration card and claimed to be a Republican, for instance, in California, you’re a member of the party.

But smart people realized the significance of the word “communicate.” Far from just letting you know where and when the next party meeting was — or sending you a newsletter — consultants soon realized they could send you messages about how good or bad certain candidates were. They could flood your mailbox with messages about candidates and ballot initiatives. If there was a Republican, say, running for office, they could send you all kinds of campaign materials about how great he or she is.

The candidate running for office, then, could save his money and use it to try to convert people who aren’t listed as Republicans.

Not only that, but the candidate can use the system to help pay for his staff. The party, after all, has to think up what to say in these “member communications.” To be able to think up something good to say, they might have to do a poll or hold a focus group. They might have to do research and come up with good graphic designs.

In the past, a candidate would have to raise money in $250 increments in order to pay for similar types of things.

But political parties can raise unlimited amounts of money from individual donors.

It’s an amazing development.

And it’s created an amazing loophole.

Unlimited amounts of money are now supporting local candidates’ bids for office. In San Diego, it may be Republicans who have learned how to best exploit this. But in other places, like Los Angeles, Democrats have taken the lead.

The California Assembly just unanimously passed a bill — AB 1430 — that would not only fortify this system but actually prevent local cities from putting a limit on donations to political parties. The legislators and their supporters say the parties are really statewide organizations and that local restrictions would create a patchwork of laws. The disputes over the new laws would line the pockets of lawyers but not be in the public’s interest.

Unfortunately, they don’t offer up an alternative way to satisfy what has been a traditional public urge to restrict major flows of cash to candidates.

In the end, actually, there may very well be good reason to eliminate restrictions on donations to political candidates and groups. After all, it seems like every major piece of campaign finance reform ends up dissolving into the stew of “unintended consequences.”

It may be time to just try to do everything you can to know where the money is coming from and just let it flow freely.

But San Diegans, long ago, chose a different route. Circumstances forced them to put a limit on the amount of money wealthy donors and unions could funnel to a campaign.

If we want to change our minds, fine.

The thing is, however, the system changed without most people recognizing it.

In 2000, the San Diego County Republican Party received just more than $100,000 in contributions for the whole year.

In 2006, the local party received $1.19 million.

For a long time, the city’s labor unions had used their large membership numbers to their advantage and bundled thousands of small contributions into large ones for candidates.

The Republicans have cleverly carved a way to compete. Only recently has the San Diego County Democratic Party figured out the potential of its own communications with its members.

The Legislature is pushing forward with a bill that would prohibit San Diego and other cities from even putting a $25,000 contribution limit on donations to political parties. Even the state itself has a $25,000 limit.

Both Republicans and Democrats, like I said, agree it’s the way to go.

San Diegans may very well concur. A few decades ago, however, we decided we wanted restrictions. If we’ve changed our minds, fine. Though, it looks like our minds were changed without us really even knowing it.

Please contact Scott Lewis directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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