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Tobacco still powerful despite “radioactive” donations

By Steve Lawrence Associated Press Writer
Monday May 07, 2001

Political contributions from industry goes to both parties through many channels 


SACRAMENTO – Money from the tobacco industry may have helped put Democrat Wilma Chan in the state Assembly last year, but you wouldn’t know it by looking at her campaign finance reports. 

No tobacco companies appear among her contributors, because Chan has a policy of not taking tobacco money. As an Alameda County supervisor she had an anti-tobacco voting record. 

But Chan may have received tobacco help anyway. The industry poured money into funds run by Assembly Democratic leaders and an organization called the Black Leadership Political Action Committee and all of them helped Chan. 

This passage of tobacco money through various organizations is how tobacco — a Democratic Party whipping boy for years — can seek favor and help key Democrats without the donations attracting much notice. 

Philip Morris, a conglomerate that includes the nation’s largest tobacco company, contributed $66,512 to the Black Leadership PAC, nearly a third of money raised by the group. 

Two other tobacco companies, R.J. Reynolds and Brown & Williamson, gave the PAC $5,000 and $3,000, respectively. 

The PAC then spent more than $12,000 sending mail supporting Chan to voters in her district. Democratic leaders gave her thousands more. 

Last November, Chan and the Democrats avenged an embarrassing 1999 loss to former Green Party member Audie Bock by beating Bock in a heavily Democratic Oakland area district. 

“People are very sensitive about tobacco money and so if it can be hidden by putting it through those PACs, people are more than happy to take it that way,” Bock said. 

Chan said she appreciated the mailing, which she didn’t know about until after the election. That tobacco money helped pay for it wouldn’t soften her anti-tobacco views. “I don’t want to have anything to do with them,” she said. 

Big tobacco has lost often in Sacramento in recent years, including the enactment of a ban on smoking in bars and most other indoor workplaces. But it remains a powerful and adaptable force, some of its critics say. 

“You can count the number of industries with major clout in Sacramento on the fingers of one hand, and the tobacco industry is clearly one of those forces,” said former Assemblyman Wally Knox, D-Los Angeles. 

“It has maintained its presence over generations of legislators by the enormous political contributions it has invested in its well-being.” 

Paul Knepprath, a lobbyist for the American Lung Association, also says the industry still has “considerable clout. They have a lot of access to policy makers so they are able to get their messages across.” 

Assembly Speaker Robert Hertzberg, the Van Nuys Democrat who controlled a fund that accepted money from two Philip Morris subsidiaries, said tobacco companies “are just not part of the equation. It’s not as if this is a Southern state.” 

Despite the setbacks, tobacco has scored some victories. Last year, Knox’s bill requiring the Public Employees Retirement System and the State Teachers Retirement System to sell off their tobacco stocks fell one vote short in an Assembly committee as a group of tobacco lobbyists looked on. 

The two pension funds divested their tobacco holdings anyway, but Knepprath said the Knox bill would have had a more lasting effect. 

The lawmaker who was chairing the public employees committee at the time, Assemblyman Lou Correa, D-Anaheim, said he abstained because he didn’t want to hamstring PERS and STRS investment managers, not because of tobacco industry opposition. 

Philip Morris, its sister corporations and the nation’s other top tobacco companies donated $1.4 million to state politicians last year, a 7 percent increase over 1998, the previous election year. Seventy-seven lawmakers reported receiving some tobacco-connected funds. 

Democrats got the most tobacco money last year for the first time since 1994, when a last-minute, $125,000 donation from Philip Morris helped Republicans win a slim majority in the Assembly. 

“Democrats were very assertive about going out looking for money in 2000,” said Assemblywoman Helen Thomson, D-Davis, who chairs the Assembly Health Committee. 

But Hertzberg said there was no effort to bring in more tobacco money. 

Jim Knox, executive director of California Common Cause, a campaign reform group, said the switch to Democrats was likely the result of Democrat Gray Davis winning the governor’s office in 1998 and Democrats adding to their majorities in both houses last year. 

“It confirms the adage that money flows to power,” he said. “There’s really no reason for interest groups to give to Republicans because Democrats have a monopoly on decision making.” 

The shift was largely due to Philip Morris, which gave more than 58 percent of its contributions to Democrats in 2000, but Philip Morris spokesman Dave Tovar said the company doesn’t “necessarily give to one party or the other. We give to candidates and legislators who we feel can be open to listening and taking our views into account.” 

Assemblyman Dennis Cardoza, D-Atwater, the chairman of the powerful Assembly Rules Committee, topped all lawmakers with $97,500 in tobacco industry donations last year. 

Part of that money went to the Democratic Business Political Action Committee, which was controlled by Cardoza and Thomson and raised money for Democratic candidates, including Chan. 

Cardoza said the tobacco companies probably contributed to him because he has been “fair and thoughtful with regard to tobacco legislation.” 

He opposes banning smoking in bars and questions why smokers who are aware of the dangers of smoking should be able to sue tobacco companies. 

But he said the state had the right to sue the companies to recover the cost of treating smoking related illnesses. 

Like Chan and a number of other Democrats, Hertzberg doesn’t take contributions from tobacco companies. 

“He is concerned about the health issues raised by tobacco smoking,” said Hertzberg spokesman Paul Hefner. 

But like a number of other lawmakers, Hertzberg took money — in his case $40,000 — from two companies that are part of the Philip Morris conglomerate — Miller Brewing Co. and Kraft Foods. 

Hertzberg said he did not consider the companies’ link to tobacco “that significant. I am not promoting tobacco. It’s not a factor in my decisions here.” 

That’s a very fine line, Knepprath said, because “it’s all the same family, the family of Philip Morris, the big tobacco company.” 

Assemblyman Bill Leonard, R-Rancho Cucamonga, says it’s a “bit of political posturing” for some Democrats to refuse tobacco money while others accept it or take money from a non-tobacco company that’s part of a tobacco corporation. 

Often, Democratic tobacco money ended up going through leadership committees that gave money to Democrats in tough races, Leonard said. 

Proposition 34, a ballot measure approved by voters last November, put a $3,000 limit on donation transfers from one lawmaker to another. 

But Common Cause’s Jim Knox says the political parties will take over that transferring function because Proposition 34 puts no limit on the size of their donations to candidates. 

“The parties will have a filtering role and the candidates will be able to deny any link or accountability,” he said. 


Tobacco industry campaign contributions in  

California by political party from 1991 to 2000: 



1991 $226,656 $172,485 

1992 $472,837 $307,308 

1993 $230,055 $96,250 

1994 $274,275 $282,800 

1995 $162,400 $267,344 

1996 $572,427 $730,531 

1997 $250 $26,700 

1998 $268,945 $722,750 

1999 $203,245 $241,250 

2000 $765,956 $633,800 


There was a voter-imposed campaign fund-raising ban in effect for much of 1997.