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Two Weeks in April: California's Clean Money Campaign Races to Collect 50,000 Signatures

Gar Smith
Friday March 31, 2017 - 02:49:00 PM

Earlier this week, a group of dogged political activists gathered for a strategy session at the Urban Adamah farm's two-plus-acre site in West Berkeley. Sitting in a circle inside a large, round Mongolian-style yurt, 20 game-changers—some who had driven from as far as Livermore and Palo Alto—were drawn together by a shared interest in supporting AB 14, a California state bill designed to help get "dark money" out of politics by requiring all print and broadcast election ads to clearly identify whose money is being spent to promote legislation.

Are you frightened by dark money? Ticked off during elections dominated by spurious campaign advertising that floods (some might say pollutes) the media stream? Well, AB 14 could be your flashlight and your life-jacket.

The DISCLOSE Act would require the top three funders of political ads—be they for ballot measures or candidates—to be clearly identified on each and every ad. In 2010, the Supreme Court ruled that spending unlimited amounts of money to influence elections was a protected form of "free speech." Trent Lange, president of the California Clean Money Acton Fund, points out: "The vast majority of the unlimited money unleashed by Citizens United is spent on deceptive political ads. AB 14 will stop them from hiding who's really behind them." 

The East Bay Action Group assembled in the Berkeley yurt heard from Clean Money coordinator Nancy Neff who underscored the need for reform by noting that, from 2012 to 2016, more than $1 billion in so-called "dark money" poured into various campaigns to fund ads designed to promote or defeat State ballot measures. Most of this malignant money was masked behind sanitized titles like "Californians against Higher Healthcare Costs" or "Stop Special Interest Money Now." Voters have learned to be suspicious when a big-bucks corporate campaign hides its agenda behind an innocuous title like "Californians for Sensible Government" or, as one of the activists proposed, "Californians for Fiscal Responsibility and Cute Puppies." 

AB 14 (authored by Assemblymembers Jimmy Gomez and Senator Ben Allen) would require that any group or individual spending more than $50,000 on election advertising be clearly identified. On TV and video ads, this disclosure would need to be on a solid black background on the bottom one-third of the screen and last for a full five seconds. Each funder would be listed on a separate line, in large, clear type "without trying to make them harder to read by putting everything in capital letters. No more fine print." 

The legislation also would require that radio ads and robocalls identify their two largest funders. This applies whether the ads are paid for by corporations, unions, or millionaires. The bill would also require "earmarking" rules to identify the original donors to a campaign, which might otherwise remain invisible beneath multiple layers of various organizations. 

There Is Hope 

The California Clean Money Campaign has been around for 14-15 years. And has come achingly close to success in several recent sessions. In August of 2016 a bill was sent to the Appropriations Committee (aka "the place where bills go to die") and left to be killed by inaction. But a vigorous letter-writing and phone campaign managed to save the bill and bring it to a vote. Ironically, the bill was opposed by big-spending Big Labor, which attempted to gut it with amendments. Typically, when such bills make it to a vote, the State's Republicans vote against it. 

There is growing hope that AB 14 might be the bill that finally wins the day. In the Supreme Court's decision in favor of the Citizens United case, eight of the nine justices agreed that disclosure of private funding in elections and political campaigns is necessary and appropriate. The Brennan Center for Justice said an earlier version of the DISCLOSE Act "stands on a firm constitutional bed rock and is worthy of support." 

There may even be Republican cosponsor this year—Contra Costa Asssemblymember Catherine Baker's name was mentioned—and Republican Sen. Anthony Cannella (R-Ceres) is seen as a key player this time around. In 2016, there were nine Republican Assemblymembers who voted for the previous bill. The Assembly is receptive: it is the State Senate that remains the crucial challenge. 

April 26 is the deadline for delivering signatures and the Clean Money campaigners hope to finish their signature gathering by April 15. According to Neff, the campaign garnered 20,000 signatures last year. This year the aim is for 50,000 signatures. Campaigners are optimistic given the fact that, on the single day of the Women's March (the day after Donald Trump's poorly attended inauguration), campaigners picked up 8,000 signatures. Neff reported that the campaign had already collected 12,000 signatures. 

In these final critical remaining weeks, volunteers will be heading to Hollister, Modesto, Merced, and Salinas (Sen. Cannella's home base). They plan to be on hand in the Central Valley during the street marches celebrating of Cesar Chavez Day. Campaigners also will be reaching out to farmers' markets and popping up in flea markets. Closer to home, the campaign will be setting up shop at Oakland's First Friday event on April 7 along the downtown strip of Telegraph Avenue. 

There will be a Lobby Day in Sacramento on Wednesday, April 26, with campaigners taking up positions outside politicians' doors at 8:45AM, ready to be the first to knock when the offices open at nine. 

Part of Lobby Day involves boosting the campaign from behind a public microphone. It's a simple assignment. You just say "I'm so-and-so and I support this bill." (That's it. That's all you're allowed to say.) Then it's back to making rounds to the offices of local representatives. 

What You Can Do 

To join the DISCLOSE campaign, to lobby, or simply to help gather signatures during these next critical weeks, you can reach the California Clean Money Campaign at:,, and (800) 566-3780. To contribute to the California Clean Money Action Fund, go to www.YesFair