If Proposition 32 had a hometown, Orange County would be it.
The Lincoln Club of Orange County is one of the main ideological architects of the ballot measure, which on its face seeks to curb political contributions by labor and corporations.
In Orange County, the local GOP has banned anyone seeking a party endorsement to elective office from accepting any union political money. And in Costa Mesa, a GOP-friendly City Council majority — already locked in a heated political battle over outsourcing — is seeking a charter initiative that would, among other things, restrict the collection of union member political dues.
Indeed, when the two sides squared off over the initiative earlier this month at the Voice of OC Community Editorial Board, it was clear that win or lose in November, the larger battle surrounding Proposition 32 won’t be over anytime soon.
At least not in Orange County.
For Michael Capaldi, a longtime GOP activist from Newport Beach and president emeritus of the Lincoln Club, Proposition 32 is the culmination of many years of activism to reign in government spending and curb the influence of organized labor and corporations in Sacramento.
Yet to Jennifer Muir, an assistant general manager of the Orange County Employees Association and member of the Voice of OC Community Editorial Board, Proposition 32 is a smokescreen for a large-scale effort to bring union bashing to unprecedented levels.
“The thing that is so deeply offensive is the idea that this is actually going to reform money in politics,” Muir countered during the Voice of OC Editorial Board meeting on Proposition 32.
“That’s not the intention of this initiative,” Muir said, adding that the measure lacks balance because it doesn’t do much to curb corporate influence in Sacramento but would have a vast impact in silencing the voice of organized labor.
In that, Proposition 32 is like previous Lincoln Club-supported initiatives in previous California elections: Propositions 75 and 226, which restricted the automatic deduction of dues from union members' paychecks.
Capaldi bristled at that notion, arguing that the Lincoln Club had spent years trying to change the course of the state and was once a major financial backer of the recall against Gray Davis because members hoped “that a radical step of like a recall would fundamentally change the state and shake up the power structure in Sacramento, and you would start to get change.”
“Didn’t happen,” said Capaldi. He stressed that Proposition 32 represents a broader solution, because it restricts the political contributions of labor and corporations.
Yet there’s little doubt that Proposition 32 has a much deeper impact on labor, because its political activism is largely dependent on member contributions, something Capaldi does not dispute.
“We’ve been accused of saying that it hits corporations and unions in a balanced fashion,” Capaldi said. “We don’t say that. Our opponents do. What we do say is that it impacts corps and unions profoundly.”
“This is not a campaign about balance,” Capaldi said.
He and other Lincoln Club backers look at labor as the central problem in California.
“Without question, we look at public employee unions in the state of California as a major culprit," he said. "We look at a decades-long inability on the part of the state of California to reform K through 12 [kindergarten through 12th-grade] education. We look at a state that is growing bigger every year [and] at the same time becoming less responsive to the needs of the public.”
But, Capaldi said, the initiative will have its effect on corporate spending too.
He notes that Proposition 32 would prevent government contractors from donating to a public official who can influence the letting of their contract. It also would prevent any corporation or union from donating a dime to a state or local candidate for office. The measure’s most controversial provision would prohibit any corporation or union from taking money out of a worker's paycheck and using it for political purposes.
“There are no loopholes. No exceptions,” Capaldi said. “It will take millions out of politicians pockets every election cycle from here on out.”
Tony Bedola, political director for the Orange County Professional Firefighters Association and a member of the Voice of OC Community Editorial Board, credited Capaldi for his open criticism of corporate influence in Sacramento. Bedolla said it was the first gathering where he heard specific criticism by a Lincoln Club member or Proposition 32 backer of corporations like AT&T or Chevron.
“When you look at AT&T in 2010, their record of buying into 98 percent of all legislative races in the state of California. Or you look at PG&E and it’s 74 percent, Burlington Northern, Visa…Capaldi said.”
Yet Muir and others said the inherent unfairness of the initiative is that while it severely restricts political spending by working men and women, in the end it does little to staunch the flow of corporate money into state politics.
Muir said the advertising behind Proposition 32 is “disingenuous,” because the television ads lump unions with corporations, thus giving the viewer the sense that labor and business collect their political money is similar ways.
“Rolling it into one fools voters,” Muir said. “Corporations don’t use employee deductions to participate in politics.”
Muir went on to say that “it’s interesting the Koch brothers just donated $4 million to influence Prop 32.” Muir said such linkages made it difficult to see the measure as equally affecting corporate political spending.
“They can continue to spend unlimited money in California politics,” Muir added, noting that corporate CEOs and political action committees can continue to participate in politics while Proposition 32 makes that tougher on the union side.
For Jack Eidt, a local land planner and environmental activist and member of the Voice of OC Community Editorial Board, the difference is in the money behind both initiatives.
And the lack of a strong protest from corporations makes Eidt suspicious about who really is affected by Proposition 32.
“Corporations are not stealthy,” Eidt said. “When they don’t like something, they spend massive amounts.”