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Brown's Secret Weapon: Independent Cash

Gubernatorial candidate Jerry Brown speaks at a campaign rally in Los Angeles Nov. 1, 2010
Gubernatorial candidate Jerry Brown speaks at a campaign rally in Los Angeles Nov. 1, 2010
On Election Day, torrent of outside money offsets Whitman's record spending

Throughout the governor’s race, Democratic nominee Jerry Brown has assailed Republican Meg Whitman’s record-breaking investment in her campaign. Yet a record-busting torrent of cash from outside groups has provided a critical counterweight on Brown’s behalf.

The fractious contest has attracted $29 million from these shadowy groups — the largest sum of any gubernatorial election in California, campaign finance reports released Monday show. The bulk of those funds, about $26.5 million, has gone to Brown. The money has financed advertising and a get-out-the-vote campaign that have helped to offset spending by Whitman, who has infused her campaign with $141 million.

“Our job was to get his messages out to the voters over the summer while Meg Whitman was spending her private wealth to bash Jerry Brown,” said David Koenig, a consultant for Working Californians to Support Jerry Brown for Governor 2010, which is largely financed by unions representing state employees, electricians and teachers. “We made it our job to help Jerry Brown survive the onslaught.”

Working Californians spent about $2.6 million on Brown’s behalf over the summer, allowing him to blanket the state with radio, television and newspaper ads. The group targeted Latino voters in the Bay Area and black voters in the Los Angeles area with radio ads featuring Stevie Wonder and former NBA star Magic Johnson.

The proliferation of independent expenditures from special interest groups this year has worried government watchdog groups. Outside groups are exempt from campaign limits, which prevent individuals from contributing more than $25,900 per candidate in the governor’s race.

Most of the outside groups supporting Brown are financed by labor unions. Most of the groups supporting Whitman are financed by law enforcement organizations. But the effect has been to provide Brown with a windfall of cash, while shielding him from some of the media attention — and perhaps some voter backlash — that have accompanied Whitman's lavish spending.

Roughly 40 independent committees are backing Brown. Among the top spenders are Concerned Educators for Jerry Brown for Governor, sponsored by the California Teachers Association ($3.2 million); Cambiando California-Jerry Brown for Governor, which represents teachers, public employees and health care workers ($2.3 million); and Alliance for a Better California 2010, composed of labor groups, educators, and others ($1.3 million).

Some law enforcement groups are backing Brown. The California Correctional Peace Officers Association, which represents 30,000 prison guards, has spent about $1.6 million on initiatives that attack Whitman, including YouTube videos that parody Whitman as a bobblehead doll who has “spent more than anyone in history.”

Whitman’s campaign said the labor-backed infusion of cash into Brown’s campaign effectively makes him “a wholly owned subsidiary” of the unions.

“Should he win, the unions will be expecting payback, mostly likely in the form of a tax increase to pay for higher wages and the gold-plated pensions of state workers,” said Darrel Ng, a Whitman spokesman.

But some political observers said the independent expenditures have helped Brown distance himself from the focus on money that has dominated the Whitman campaign.

“Independent expenditures free up the candidate, so they don’t have to get their hands dirty,” said James Cottrill, an assistant political science professor at Santa Clara University. “They have helped Brown promote a positive agenda, and that gives voters something to turn out for.”

A Field Poll released Thursday showed Brown with a 10-point lead over the former eBay chief executive, 49 percent to 39 percent.

As the polls turned in his favor over the last few weeks, Brown invoked more positive political rhetoric. He took a calculated gamble at a women’s conference last week when he offered to pull negative ads. With a deficit to make up, Whitman refused. The crowd booed.

Brown’s staff attributed their candidate’s lead to hard work and an engaging political platform, adding that the campaign has nothing to do with the financial contributions of special interest groups.

“People view him as a candidate that has offered reasons to vote for him,” said Sterling Clifford, a spokesman for Brown. “They operate independently of us.”

But Clifford acknowledged that waiting until after Labor Day to unleash his campaign cash was key to Brown’s surge in the polls.

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