By On the occasion of our 20th anniversary
By Gustavo Arellano
By R. Scott Moxley
By Alfonso Delgado
By Courtney Hamilton
By Joel Beers
By Peter Maguire
By Charles Lam
Johnson came up on the winning side with his follow-up measure, campaign-reforming Proposition 73, which he got on the 1988 ballot to counter a competing initiative, Proposition 68. Both passed, but his became law because it got 55 percent approval to 68’s 54 percent.
“He has a lot of experience with these issues,” says Stern, who was the FPPC’s general counsel when then-Assemblyman Johnson would frequently appear before the commission. “We had some vigorous debates and discussions, but I always had a lot of respect for him.”
Thinking back to one discussion made Stern chuckle. “In 1983, we took a position against his public-campaign-finance initiative,” he recalls. “He was very angry. He said I was wrong, and I think he’s right: I was wrong. I’m not sure if my support would have made a difference, but he always reminds me of that. We’ve always had lots of interchange.”
“Ross Johnson has earned my lifelong gratitude for his leadership on electronic-voting-verification issues in the legislature,” says Kim Alexander, president and founder of the California Voter Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to advancing the responsible use of technology in the democratic process. Back in 2003, when the state and Orange County were considering paperless voting machines because industry backers swore up and down verification was not necessary, Johnson and Senator Don Perata (D-Oakland) co-authored a bill to mandate a voter-verified, paper audit trail of any electronic ballot cast in the state of California. The legislature passed it unanimously, Schwarzenegger signed it into law the next year, and California became a national leader in voter verification.
Alexander originally got to know Johnson in the 1990s, when she was a lobbyist for California Common Cause and the legislator opposed many of the issues the organization pushed at the time. But she considers his stands on the use of voting technology heroic. “Ross Johnson played a very important role in making sure California could have confidence in the voter technology used in our state,” she says.
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During the five-year reign of Johnson’s predecessor, Liane M. Randolph, the nonpartisan FPPC pursued so many petty cases that it created a bottleneck. Randolph blamed this on funding and threatened to drop more than 200 investigations unless the legislature doubled the commission’s budget. That fell on unsympathetic ears among legislators, and when it turned out to be an empty threat, it only added to the FPPC’s reputation for being toothless.
“It’s fair to say that the FPPC is not among the nation’s most-powerful regulatory agencies,” Jack Pitney, a Claremont McKenna College political-science professor, says. “Moreover, the most reliable constant of campaign finance is that professional politicians will find ways around the law. As the Supreme Court observed in McConnell v. FEC [Federal Elections Commission], ‘Money, like water, will always find an outlet.’”
Johnson, whose term expires in 2011, has tried mightily to stem the flow. Among his first priorities was getting his four fellow commissioners and 76-member staff to take a hard look at their regulations. They simplified rules so “a soccer mom can run for office without having to hire a lawyer.” He believes “the overwhelming bulk of politicians want to obey the law”; they just want to know what the rules are. He did concede, however, that there are those who push the rules as far as they can.
A major restructuring of the office under Johnson resulted in a new executive director, head of enforcement, general counsel and chief of administration. Minor old complaints were cleared out this summer by issuing warning letters instead of the usual fines. Because legislative leaders and Attorney General Jerry Brown, who as secretary of state championed the creation of the FPPC in 1974, were among those who received letters, good-government types accused Johnson of going light on his former pals.
Roman Porter begs to differ. The FPPC’s executive director sits one chair over from Johnson at the conference table. After working as the press spokesman for state Senator Joe Dunn (D-Santa Ana), Porter took a similar position with the FPPC but was promoted in the restructuring. Jettisoning the old cases, Porter maintains, allows new complaints to be immediately addressed, and significantly more attention and resources are thrown at major infractions.
Johnson, who never used a computer while serving in the legislature, pushed the commission to post on its website (www.FPPC.ca.gov) campaign contributions in real time, as they are reported—who got them, who gave them and contact information for all involved. After it was revealed in December 2007 that the nonprofit Protocol Foundation was funding Schwarzenegger’s daily plane commute between Brentwood and Sacramento, the FPPC toughened regulations to force the governor’s office to post gifts and gift-givers on its website.
“He wants the FPPC to be tough,” a lawyer who asked not to be identified because of business before the commission says of Johnson. “It’s a difficult role; they are damned if they do, damned if they don’t. If they do a good job, that makes the legislature unhappy and the legislature does not want to fund them. The chairman has to deal with that limitation.”