Thanks in part to the bankroll of a local congressman, California's Electoral College reform initiative is back. Given up for dead by many political observers when its original backers withdrew support in September, the deep pockets of Vista Republican Darrell Issa have helped revive the initiative that would change the way California's electoral votes are apportioned. But now some observers are wondering if Issa's ventured into illegal activity.
A star in Republican circles after his financial support spearheaded the recall of then-Gov. Gray Davis in 2003, Issa's involvement in this initiative has been trumpeted by many, including Ron Nehring, chairman of the state Republican Party. Dubbed the Presidential Electoral Reform Act, the initiative would allocate California's electoral votes according to which presidential candidate wins a congressional district, meaning that 20 or more of the state's 55 electoral votes could go to the Republican presidential nominee. Currently, it's winner-take-all.
So far, Issa has been circumspect about the exact nature of his support, leading some to question whether he has been sharing information from the 2003 recall, a move that would violate California election law.
Democratic campaign manager Bill Cavala weighed in last week at the online California Progress Report, questioning how exactly Issa was contributing to the initiative campaign. Specifically, he notes a recent Sacramento Bee story reporting that Issa “said he is also sending out letters to the same voters who signed recall petitions in 2003, asking them to submit signatures once again for the Electoral College initiative.” GOP strategist Ed Rollins, who is working on the signature-gathering campaign, told the Bee: “He has given us his lists and his database from the recall effort. I think his contribution was extremely generous.”
As Cavala has pointed out, use of the petition information from 2003 could be a misdemeanor violation of state election law, a point that the Secretary of State's office confirmed for CityBeat. In addition, providing the information could constitute an “in-kind” contribution. Failure to report such contributions is also a misdemeanor, the penalty for which is removal from office. While state law cannot remove a federal official from office, an investigation would pose political problems for Issa.
Issa made his fortune with Directed Electronics Inc., best known for the Viper car alarm. Today, he is one of the wealthiest members of Congress, with a net worth estimated in the hundreds of millions. Since the 1990s, he has spent millions on California politics: $12 million to finance an unsuccessful Senate primary campaign in 1998, and $1.6 million on the 2003 gubernatorial recall. Issa told The New York Times he has contributed $50,000 to the newly revived Electoral College initiative but has elsewhere described his financial commitment as “fluid.”
In September, Issa told The Hill that members of Congress tend not to funnel funds into initiatives that don't directly impact them. “We barely mention them until they qualify,” Issa said. “Usually they're just talked about to get us to spend money.”
Questions surrounding Issa's involvement have captured the attention of state Democrats. California Democratic Party spokesperson Brian Brokaw said there are “serious questions” about the tactics being used by backers of the initiative and that the allegations against Issa “raised potential legal issues and certainly wouldn't be appropriate.”
A spokesperson for Issa referred CityBeat to the group organizing the initiative campaign, California Counts, which did not respond to a request for comment. The group includes a number of prominent backers of Republican presidential candidate Rudy Guiliani.
While recent polling found that just 22 percent of likely voters support the initiative, the new attention has mobilized Democrats, with state party chair Art Torres promising a constitutional challenge if the initiative qualifies for the ballot.