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Photo by James BunoanJames Lacy has a long history in right-wing politics. The Dana Point planning commissioner, constitutional-law attorney and political consultant is a former national chairman of the Young Americans for Freedom. He's also one of campaign-finance reform's most lethal enemies.
But last month, Lacy, a Republican, seemingly switched sides. Just before Election Day, Lacy unleashed a series of slate mailings urging Santa Monica residents to vote for prominent Democrats who support liberal causes such as abortion rights and education. The same mailers also directed them to vote "NO on JJ," a vote to kill the city's living-wage ordinance.
Designed to lift minimum-wage workers out of poverty and reduce the burden on city social-welfare funds, JJ would have required downtown and coastal Santa Monica employers earning more than $5 million per year to pay employees $12.50 per hour, or $10.50 per hour plus health-care benefits. Although it led in polls up to Election Day, JJ lost by a tiny margin on Nov. 5.
The fact that registered Democrats in Santa Monica were flooded with thousands of misleading mailers in the last days of the race seems to be the best explanation for why that happened. One questionable mailer endorsed two prominent Democrats, Congressman Henry Waxman (D-Santa Monica) and Assemblywoman Fran Pavley (D-Woodland Hills). In massive bold type at the bottom of the page, the mailer states, "NO on JJ."
While an asterisk next to those words informed voters that the mailer was paid for by an organization called Democratic Voters Ballot Guide, neither Waxman, Pavley nor the Democratic Party—all of whom publicly supported JJ—had anything to do with the mailer or the Democratic Voters Ballot Guide, which didn't exist until a few weeks before the election. In fact, hotel owners paid for the mailer, and the so-called Democratic Voters Ballot Guide was just a front group consisting of a pair of career right-wing political consultants, including Lacy.
Lacy was also behind two other anti-Measure JJ mailers. One said, "Attention Pro-Choice Voters" and announced that "Santa Monica's pro-choice leaders agree: no on Measure JJ." A third bore the caption "Important Santa Monica Issues for Women, Our Young & Our Poor" and urged recipients to vote no on Measure JJ.
In a recent interview at his Laguna Niguel law office, Lacy acknowledged that he was asked to help defeat Measure JJ by his old friend William "Lord" Butcher, who is listed on election paperwork as the person who "authorized" the contents of the mailer.
Butcher and Lacy previously teamed up to produce slate mailers for "Save Proposition 13," having first met in the late 1970s when they worked for the Howard Jarvis Taxpayer's Association, which sponsored the controversial statewide property-tax initiative. Prop. 13 prohibited any new property taxes on existing homeowners. It had the effect of starving California of cash for welfare, education and other social programs.
Butcher, who moved to England in the 1980s and changed his name to Lord Butcher even though he is neither a British subject nor of noble birth, is even more famous for his right-wing direct-mail campaigns. He formed a Newport Beach consulting firm with Arnold Forde; the pair liked to call themselves the "Darth Vaders of Direct Mail." They raised money for conservative political causes by, among other things, scaring elderly voters into thinking they were in danger of losing their Social Security checks or that Prop. 13 was about to be overturned.
Meanwhile, they got rich, allegedly pocketing much of the money they raised. A 1996 Los Angeles Times story reported they kept as much as $5 million per year of their firm's $12 million in earnings in the mid-1980s.
Lacy doesn't find it ironic that he and Butcher, two lifelong pro-life Republicans, were the only officials of a phantom group calling itself the Pro-Choice Voters Committee. "The irony is I'm a lawyer," he said. "I work for Democrats and Republicans, but I happen to be a conservative Republican."
Because he's a lawyer, Lacy is a double threat. He helps organize deceptive slate-mail campaigns on behalf of private developers, anti-abortion groups and other conservative causes. Then, when voters pass campaign-finance laws to regulate deceptive slate-mail campaigns, he uses his legal expertise to get those regulations overturned in court.
Lacy makes much of the fact that he has worked with lawyers representing both political parties in overturning campaign finance regulations.
"Along with my co-counsel—a Democrat—I was successful in overturning slate-mail regulations in [statewide campaign finance reform measures] Propositions 208 and 134," he boasted.
Lacy is still trying to overturn a county-approved $1,000 cap on individual contributions—a limit that also applies to slate mailers and, thus, his pocketbook. The ordinance, which the Board of Supervisors passed in July, was authored by good-government activist Shirley Grindle.
"The Constitution says you can't limit free speech," Lacy said. "As a professional in the field, I equate independent expenditures to the ultimate constitutional right. Shirley Grindle's reasoning is that voters are stupid. I don't think anybody can buy an election. But there's no question that slate mailers are a medium of communication that can't be ignored, particularly in a close election."
On that last point, if on nothing else, Grindle says she completely agrees with Lacy. She has spent the past three decades trying to reform campaign-finance laws, only to see much of that work overturned by legal challenges, as most recently occurred with Props. 134 and 208—both of which Lacy helped orchestrate.
"Every time we close a loophole, it seems like they find a new way to get around it," she said. "I'm just about ready to give up."