Sometimes it’s clear whom we’re “supposed” to vote for. But on what basis do we decide? I’d rather the basis were factual, and beyond some loyalty-prerogative exacted by friends and allies. But evidence is manipulable too, and unevenly present between incumbent and non-incumbent. Even nominal records need scrutiny for coincidence and inconsistent association, else the political process degenerates to coronation.
One problem with political incumbency can be described by way of a riff on Einstein’s definition of insanity: ‘re-electing the same candidate and expecting a different legislative work product.’
There’s a lot to explore in the aphorism: re-election and candidacy; legislative work, and work product; and knowing and evaluating all.
As a voter, it’s on us to evaluate legislative work product. But it turns out to be hard to follow one legislator’s work product, because the legislature reports voting record by bill, not lawmaker. There doesn’t seem to be a public database for tracking the history of a legislator’s votes (though a free account here might provide close).
So a common work-around for tracking legislator-positions is to track the source of the candidate or legislator’s donations, which are reportable by law and therefore quasi-readily available. The hope is the record might elucidate a legislator’s positions by reflecting a shared sympathy for issues and institutions.
But parsing money is not the same as correlating it with voting record, necessary for inferring cause and effect. Yet when your representative challenges you to show them how their voting record correlates with the money they accept, that turns out to be something of a fool’s errand: it’s next to impossible to do because of the opacity of the public record.
And this is an advantage of incumbency – keeping it so.
For example, recall the drama of AB1400, aka “CalCare”, the latest bill in California’s long history of supplications to maximize healthcare for all. That bill was pulled from the floor at the eleventh hour avoiding any formal recording of vote, because of the author’s (Ash Kalra, from San Jose’s AD27) ‘insider’s conviction’ that the bill “did not have the votes necessary to pass.” And in a classic exhibit of ‘blame the victim,’ we citizens were exhorted to “elect better legislators.”
Here’s the dilemma: how are we to elect better legislators, when we cannot discern the work record of those we have? When their true positions are effectively shielded from public view by these sorts of institutional sleights-of-hand, that protect incumbents from accountability?
The incumbent’s prerogative enables legislatively folding a bill’s hand, without showing its telling contents. But worse, what if by rumor alone, an incumbent with opaque record is supported on the strength of that reputation, to the detriment of a candidate whose position is crystalline? Adding injury to insult, the charge to “elect better legislators” is not just quixotic, but crippled.
Imperfect though it may be, therefore, the tedious task of scrutinizing donations for policy-patterns remains the best poor-man’s tool available.
Tables 1-8 [below. Press the hyperlinked main, regular text to open tables in a separate window. Press the hyperlinked italicized text beneath each included table to open the tables as a pdf] present several perspectives on campaign donations to one of AB1400’s co-authors, northeast-East LA incumbent State Assemblymember Wendy Carrillo (AD52).
Campaign account holdings are under the candidate’s control, yet capped in donation-size by law. In contrast, accounts not under the candidate’s control, described as “Independent Expenditure Committee” (IEC)’s, may reflect donations that are more dramatic, yet fail to reveal the breadth of interaction and influence of a directly-controlled donation. Moreover, like the performative bill for which no final vote is recorded, accountability is dodged regarding IECs, but a candidate’s monies – and contributors – are their own.
Of particular interest are patterns among donations classified by money “source-type”. And the appearance of individuals with a history of notorious behavior. These records are no proof of malfeasance. And the power of incumbency seems to provide opportunity for blocking information flow that might show correlation or cause-and-effect. But since the voter’s principle of caveat emptor remains, we are relegated to this imperfect, eyebrow-raising, oblique exercise.
Table 1 [click the hyperlinked “Table x” reference for tables in a separate window or the italicized link below the embedded graphicfor a pdf] shows the relative distribution of Assemblymember Carrillo’s donations according to broad source-type. Well over 80% of her monies derive from political action committees (PACs), trade or industry associations and corporations. Her support is quintessentially big money-establishment-oriented.
Table 1 [hyperlink to pdf]: Distribution of candidate Assemblymember Carrillo’s donations averaged across three election cycles: 2017 (pre-election), 2019 and 2021. Individuals (including candidate-campaigns) comprise a small part of her donations; large corporate and union entities comprise the bulk of it.
And this is a pattern emphasized (Table 2a) through time, with individual’s and campaign’s contributions dropping to well below 10% for the last two election cycles, upon her incumbency. Even while after election in December 2017, the overall total figures are a fraction of the contributions garnered while running for office the first time.
Table 2a is color-coded in Table 2b, to depict relative contribution of source totals within money type. The salmon color emphasizes relatively larger sums gradating down to pale green. Large, institutional Labor money comprises 40% of the initial donations overall, which decline after election even while staying an order of magnitude more important than other donation sources. The decline is substituted incrementally by other institutional monoliths from Business, Biotech/Pharma and Construction. Biotech/Pharma contributions to this (CalCare) single-payer co-author continue to grow, as does Healthcare money. Energy and utility monies leaped after election, even while remaining on-par with Education and secondary to Nonprofit “identity”-oriented interest groups.
Money was strategically focused on seating this candidate by individuals (Table 3) in Impact investment, and the gargantuan Finance-Insurance-Real Estate (FIRE) sector. These numbers fell tremendously in absolute, though not relative, terms after election. This paradox reflects the decimation of individual contributions after election, and the enormous growth of Association money from Biotech and Energy-Utilities. This official was set in office by big institutional money, and their support is even more concentrated after election.
But what of the growth in Biotech/Pharma and Health care contributions to this CalCare co-author?
To investigate that money*, Table 3 [hyperlink to separate window here in one or three pages, and to pdf below] details Individual donors, ordered by sum total contributions within money source. “Impact investors,” perhaps naturally, have the largest weight, featuring many well-known privatization ideologues both within the education sector and more generally without, as proponents of public-private partnerships in the public sector.
While Health care monies from individuals proportionally increased, these contributions are not startling in absolute amount through time. What is reflected is more generalized, in the tripling of contributions from all PR professionals. The increase tracks, presumably, the synergy between candidates and their communications professionals.
Instead from the Health care-source details of PAC-Associations (Table 4), and Corporations (Table 5), there is a laundry list of trade and managed-care and hospital associations not generally known for their support of single-payer ideology.
It is hard to understand how so many entities that are hostile to the transformation of health care from commodity to human right, could justify monetary support for a cause antithetical to their ideology. And there is an alternative explanation. Could this support for one of CalCare’s co-authors, have been invested knowingly in one who was instead not truly committed to single-payer ideology? Since the bill’s authors used the institution of their incumbency to shield their colleague’s true intentions from public accountability, it is entirely possible that these investments, superficially inconsistent with universal healthcare, were in truth invested in precisely the outcome desired: deflected advocacy.
The donations specifically from Health care entities abstracted in Table 6, merit more nuanced and knowledgeable inspection. Association memberships change as evidenced by – gasp – the AMA’s near acceptance of single-payer recently. Some of these entities may be more receptive to legislating guaranteed healthcare for all than is suggested merely by their names. Corrections to these classifications* are gratefully absorbed.
Tennessee’s Blue Dog Democrat Jim Cooper furnishes this listing of American Health Care Act foes, and together with the 122 signatory California Chamber allies arrayed against CalCare, Table 7 suggests a rudimentary labeling of some entities unlikely to support AB1400. More than 20% of these monies ($19,950) were given after the demise of AB1400 in February, 2022.
Meanwhile Health workers unions, some of which were principal sponsors of AB1400, have collectively given $28,896 to Wendy Carrillo since 2/1/22, the demise of AB1400 (Table 8).
This incumbency-chauvinism is not without consequence. The exhortation to ‘elect better Democrats’ cannot be achieved when the institutional machinery shields, protects from scrutiny, and automatically supports one candidate at the expense of another who might indeed be “better.”
Mia Livas Porter is challenging Assemblymember Carrillo in AD52; they will both be in the general election of November 8, 2022 – ballots will be in your mailbox soon.
And the evidence above (and to follow) suggests Carrillo may well not be one of these “Better Democrats,” even while Porter may be just precisely so. See her platform here and her mom-centered, health care-focus here.
Which would all be to say, that our good faith is being played: to overcome an offense (=insufficiency of “good” Democrats among incumbents), we are set conditions to achieve (=elect “better” democrats), that are expressly sabotaged by the inherent nature of the offense (=power of incumbent to ensure persistence of insufficiency among Democrats).
There’s more of concern regarding the “goodness” of Carrillo’s support and supporters.
Assemblymember Carrillo employed first as district director and then as Chief of Staff, a financial contributor who is also central to the City of LA Councilmember José Huizar’s federal public corruption case. George Esparza, working as councilmember Huizar’s “special assistant”, “admitted to participating in a criminal enterprise called the Council District A Enterprise (CD-A Enterprise), …from early 2013 through November 2018.” Even while Carrillo first hired Esparza as her district director in January 2018.
As part of that “racketeering”, there were many nested schemes around George Esparza and the CD-A Enterprise. One in particular involved renovation of 940 South Hill Street in downtown LA, for which the council member provided the developer bureaucratic assistance in exchange for cash, funneled through several parties and brokered by Esparza. In addition to him, at least five parties associated with this particular scheme around 940 Hill Street LLC (Figure 1), also appear among Carrillo’s donors.
The donations each reached the maximum permitted, $4400, and all were “started” on the same date, 7/25/18, which falls during Esparza’s tenure in Carrillo’s office. Five additional donations of $4400 were also started on 7/25/18, from entities not obviously related to Esparza’s coincidental duties for CD-A Enterprise (Figure 2).
This appearance of impropriety is no more proof of influence than the heavy presence of single-payer-hostile associations is of bad faith. But these are the patterns we voters have to go on in deciding who is the “better democrat”.
It’s time to put a stop to this self-sealing system that prescribes marching orders without evidence of worthiness, and out of sight, inhibits the prescription from being fulfilled.