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Costa’s Next Stand: Fair Elections

The father of the California recall election and the state’s term-limit movement is preparing to launch a crusade for public financing of Congressional and state elections in the Golden State.

Ted Costa, a conservative activist who is the master of the ballot initiative in California, said he is researching the cost of a limited public-financing system for campaigns in the state. If he is convinced it can be done without draining the state treasury, then he will launch a petition drive to put the question before the voters — perhaps as soon as 2004.

“I know my Republican friends will kill me,” said Costa, CEO of the Sacramento-based People’s Advocate Inc., the organization that successfully put the recall of Gov. Gray Davis (D) on the state ballot.

Costa — who also passed term-limit initiatives for state legislators and the California Congressional delegation, though the Congressional limits were later thrown out in court — said he sees public financing as an extension of his previous campaigns, a way to restore democracy to a political system that has been hijacked by special interests and career politicians.

“I don’t see it as public financing,” he said. “I see it as matching funds.”

While Costa is just beginning to circulate word of this initiative — even before his latest crusade, the recall of Davis, is resolved — the Golden State political community is sure to take notice.

“He is a factor in California politics,” said one Democratic operative.

Under Costa’s proposal, the state would dedicate one-tenth of 1 percent of its property tax revenue to a special campaign fund. All candidates for Congressional and state offices who have been endorsed by at least one-third of their local party central committees would then be eligible for “matching funds.” The funds would match their opponents’ corporate contributions and union donations and any checks the opponents might have written to their own campaigns.

Because the candidate would have to receive backing from only one-third of the local party committee, it means two candidates in a particular primary election can qualify for the public funds. Candidates would also have to agree to spend most of their campaign funds — perhaps as high as 85 percent — on direct voter contact, limiting the role of consultants and paid campaign staff, Costa said. He predicted that the measure would reduce the number of self-funded candidates seeking office in California.

While Costa conceded that he is still developing his idea, observers said nothing he does should be taken lightly.

“Anyone who’s successful putting measures on the ballot has some credibility,” said Jim Knox, executive director of Common Cause/California, a government watchdog group. Knox said he was unaware of Costa’s public financing proposal but said, “We welcome his interest.”

A lifelong campaign strategist and political agitator, Costa, while unabashedly conservative and sympathetic to the GOP, has angered Republicans almost as often as he has aggravated Democrats.

“He is not caught up in the mess that is the California Republican Party,” said one veteran of state politics.

Costa ran unsuccessfully for the GOP nomination to a slot on the state Board of Equalization in 2002, in part to protest what he called “the Republican sellout” on redistricting.

Costa’s ballot initiative, if he goes forward, would not be the first attempt to bring public financing to California.

In 1986, two campaign finance reform measures were approved by the voters, and one of them provided for public financing of all state campaigns. But because another measure banning public financing was approved by a wider margin, it took precedent and must be overturned by the voters for any public financing proposal to become law.

Another public financing ballot question was defeated in 1998, and legislation on public financing has been killed in every legislative session for the past decade.

Opponents of campaign finance reform have argued that restrictions on campaign contributions violate free speech laws. Costa said his proposal does not do that at all.

“We’re not limiting free speech,” he said. “We’re matching free speech.”

Costa said the interest that the recall election has rekindled in state politics could inspire voters to embrace his latest reform proposal.

Costa, who organized the first petition drives for the Davis recall early this year and then worked with other recall backers such as Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) to successfully get the question on the ballot, favors conservative state Sen. Tom McClintock (R) in the race should Davis be recalled. But he is not stumping for McClintock and said he understands why some conservatives are rallying around movie star Arnold Schwarzenegger as the more electable Republican.

Even so, he infuriated Republicans by threatening to withhold the petitions his organization had collected. Costa argued that the recall election should be held concurrent with the next state primary in March 2004, to maximize voter turnout. But many GOP leaders wanted it on the ballot in October to capitalize on anti-Davis sentiment. The question of when the election will be held is now being considered by a federal appeals court.

Costa said he was heartened to hear that Schwarzenegger embraced a reform agenda last week that included requiring a nonpartisan panel of judges to draw Congressional and legislative district lines every 10 years in California.

Costa has backed nonpartisan redistricting ballot votes for years and said that the recall quite simply would not have been necessary if redistricting were a fair and nonpartisan process. Disaffected voters would be able to vent their anger if races were competitive.

“Redistricting is the solution to most of the problems in California,” he said. “People who want to hold a Congressman or a legislator’s feet to the fire must have a decent-sized minority party to have any effect at all.”

Costa was disdainful of a California political establishment that purposely made only a few of the state’s 53 Congressional districts even remotely competitive. He said that if the lines had been drawn fairly, a little more than half of the districts would lean Democratic, rather than the 33 safe Democratic seats that exist now.

Costa has worked with Republican Reps. Bill Thomas and Devin Nunes to reform California’s redistricting process.But despite his philosophical bent, Costa said Republican efforts to pack districts to their benefit are just as bad.

“In Texas, they’re like a bunch of school kids right now,” he said.

Costa was in Washington, D.C., last week to make a presentation on the recall to the Club for Growth, the conservative anti-tax group. Costa said he and club leaders were planning to hold a news conference on the recall, but those plans were washed away by Hurricane Isabel.

“He’s one of the guys I listen to on California politics,” Club for Growth President Stephen Moore said of Costa.

The organization has not backed any of the candidates in the recall race, though Moore said he speaks regularly with both McClintock and Schwarzenegger. He noted that the Howard Jarvis Foundation — which was founded to honor the work of the man who passed the Proposition 13 property tax initiative in 1978, another campaign Costa was involved with — has endorsed Schwarzenegger.

“Schwarzenegger right now is aggressively pursuing economic conservative leaders and groups to get them behind him and he’s moving in our direction on many economic issues,” Moore said.

The Republican Main Street Partnership, a group that works to elect moderate Republicans and is often at odds with the Club for Growth, last week called on McClintock to drop out of the recall election to ensure a Republican victory — Schwarzenegger’s.

Costa said that even if the recall fails, many of his goals when he fought to get it on the ballot have already been accomplished. Californians are talking about their state government again and are registering to vote, and the media are covering state government and politics for the first time in decades.

“We have driven home the concept that there is a major problem in Sacramento, and we have people working to do something about it,” Costa said.

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