California's top 100 political donors spend $1 billion+ over decade


On one side you have corporate leaders and powerful Hollywood brokers; on the other, industry and labor unions. Together they've given one-third of all donated money to campaigns in the state since 2001.

/*California Watch*/ calls them "rainmakers": an elite club of people and interest groups influencing voters in elections with their checkbooks. The state's top 100 political donors spent more than $1 billion over the last decade.

  • The biggest spender is the California Teachers Association, spending $118 million.
  • PhRMA, the pharmaceutical industry, doled out nearly $72 million.
  • Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) came in a close third, donating almost $67 million.

"They spend that much because they are getting something in return," said Phillip Ung, California Common Cause. "This is buying them access. This is buying them influence, or else they wouldn't be spending this money."

All three of the top donors defend their spending. Some teachers say it's a way to get their viewpoint across and educate voters.

"That's why I'm big and strong on unions, so my collective voice is heard," said 2nd-grade teacher Fred Lavell.

PhRMA says it must partner with diverse stakeholders and policymakers who advance patient care and innovation to keep the U.S. competitive.

PG&E points out that $46 million of the $67 million it spent was just on Proposition 16, making it harder for public agencies to enter the power business. Prop. 16 ultimately lost, but the company still makes political donations.

"We think it's important that the viewpoints and the concerns of our customers and of our employees and of our shareholders are all represented to lawmakers and regulators," said Lynsey Paulo, a PG&E spokeswoman.

But big money didn't necessary mean victory every time. Wealthy Hollywood producer Stephen Bing spent nearly $50 million in 2006 for a measure to tax big oil to fund alternative energy, and lost.

Still, California Watch found the campaign elites almost always got their way, with the top 100 donors giving nearly five times as much to winning candidates as they did to losers: 55 cents of every dollar contributed went to initiatives that won.

Sometimes California Watch saw donors contributing to both candidates in the same race, but different parties.

"Simply to hedge their bet. Regardless of who wins, they have the influence," said Ung.

Common Cause says the one thing that you do have is a vote. That's why it's still important to cast your ballot at every election, including Tuesday's.

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