Longtime OC GOP legislator Ross Johnson finds new life as a campaign-finance watchdog in Sacramento
Ross Johnson once famously remarked that leading Republicans in the California Assembly was “like herding cats through a minefield while juggling hand grenades.” He wasn’t doing either this hot October day in the 1920s-era Sacramento office he occupies as the full-time chairman of the Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC), but he was shaking a little after an exchange of pleasantries, a reflection perhaps of nerves, his 69 years or his air conditioner being cranked up to 11. His shoulders also appeared too close to his ears as he slumped into his chair, like Humphrey Bogart’s Captain Queeg. But in no time, the shaking ceased, and Johnson was slamming his palms on the conference table to punctuate a point, changing his voice to reflect different characters in a story he was telling, and guffawing over the sights and slights his eyes have seen in his 26 years under the Capitol dome.
Elected out of Fullerton to the state Assembly in 1978, he was among the Republican “Proposition 13 babies” who rode the property-tax measure’s coattails into office. The pride of Anaheim High School’s Class of 1957 served in three different Orange County Assembly districts through 1995, and then served in the state Senate through 2004 until term limits finally did him in. No friend of progressives, Johnson fought term limits, public financing of elections, taxes and regulations on business; he backed the death penalty, property rights, smaller class sizes, a longer school year and lower spending on social programs. He led the statewide campaign to remove Rose Bird from the California Supreme Court in 1986, co-authored the Three Strikes and You’re Out law in 1994, and was the first legislator in history to serve as a party leader in both houses of the California legislature.
An ironworker at age 16, a hospital corpsman in the Navy, a Cal State Fullerton graduate and the holder of a jurist doctorate from Western State College of Law, Johnson sold his Orange County residence and was enjoying a nice retirement with his wife, Diane, in Gold River, east of Sacramento, when the governor came calling last year.
“Without a doubt, this is the single best appointment Governor [Arnold] Schwarzenegger could have made to head this troubled agency,” state Senator Jim Battin (R-Palm Desert) wrote on OC Republican political junkie Jon Fleischman’s “Flash Report” blog shortly after Johnson was named to head the FPPC on Valentine’s Day 2007.
Concerns over an entrenched Sacramento politico being charged with policing his former colleagues have been dashed in his first 21 months at the FPPC.
“Ross Johnson is one of my favorite people these days,” says Bob Stern, general counsel of the Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles. “I think he’s doing a terrific job. It’s somewhat of a surprise because he came from the legislature. Usually when you think of a legislator coming to the FPPC, you think they are going to be a lap dog monitoring what the legislature is doing. But he is continuing the tradition of being a watchdog instead of a lap dog.”
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Political reform, Johnson says, has always been “a fundamental issue” to him, something he traces back to his childhood. “My aunt passed away when she was well into her 80s. She said from the time I was a little boy, fairness mattered to me,” Johnson says. “I was always a member of the minority in the legislature my entire career. I didn’t like to lose, but I didn’t mind if I felt I was being treated fairly.”
He confides that his jones for campaign-finance reform often put him at odds with fellow conservatives who consider any such restrictions to be a violation of free speech. “There was a tendency on the part of my colleagues to pat me on the head and say, ‘That’s just Ross being Ross,’ and then go on to talk about some other issue,” he says. It was also difficult making inroads with many officeholders. “Whether you answer that the existing system is good or bad, it’s working for the people in office. They won.”
The first Assembly bill he authored concerned campaign reform. He and his wife sold their home to raise the funds to get Proposition 40 on the 1984 ballot; at the time, Johnson called it “the most radical proposal that’s been put before the voters anywhere in terms of campaign finance.” The measure went on to generate the largest political coalition in the history of California, including the GOP, the AFL-CIO, Common Cause, the Farm Bureau, the Sierra Club, the Democratic Party, the Chamber of Commerce and the League of Women voters. “Unfortunately for me, they were all opposed to the initiative,” says Johnson. “We were literally, in the end, only supported by four groups in the entire state. There was a group of churches that sponsored it, the California Grange endorsed it, Shirley Grindle’s group TINCUP [Time Is Now, Clean Up Politics] in Orange County, and I can’t recall the fourth. A couple of newspapers endorsed it. It was an ignominious defeat.”
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.”
Pitney remains wary. “It’s not surprising that Ross Johnson has become an advocate of reform,” he says. “Many retired politicians shudder when they look back on their fund-raising days. Mentally healthy people don’t enjoy begging for money, and Mr. Johnson has always seemed quite sane.”
“People can say, ‘You’re a hypocrite, you took large contributions.’ Yes, I did,” Johnson says. “As a member of the minority party, I was still always near the top of the fund-raisers. But I always felt the rules should be changed, and I always carried legislation to do this.”
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Johnson has often been accused of having a dark side. Angered with fellow Republican Chuck Quackenbush’s vote on an education-funding bill in 1992, Johnson lunged at him and had to be restrained. Johnson admitted to the Weekly that his temper got the better of him this past spring. After the FPPC charged state Senator Carole Migden with 89 election violations, the San Francisco Democrat agreed to pay a record $350,000 fine—then sued the FPPC for $1 million, claiming her First Amendment free-speech rights were violated when the FPPC forbade her from using in her reelection campaign $647,000 in political contributions she raised in previous Assembly and Board of Equalization races.
At March’s state Democratic Convention, Migden accused Johnson of “Nixonian” behavior. Johnson shot back that Migden was trying to bully the FPPC, which filed a $9 million countersuit, detailing her career of alleged fund-raising infractions. The mess was finally settled on Oct. 15, when Migden agreed to pay the FPPC $40,000 to resolve the allegations and the commission picked up her attorney’s fees. Weeks before the settlement was reached, Johnson sheepishly confided that he should have kept his mouth closed.
But Migden wasn’t complaining when the FPPC, under Johnson, shed light on the massively unfair funding advantage her opponent had in the June 3 Democratic primary. A preliminary injuction allowed Migden to tap into the $647,000, but that was no match for the war chest Assemblyman Mark Leno amassed thanks to loopholes in state campaign-finance laws. Leno cruised to victory; the volatile Migden leaves office this month.
Virtually unregulated independent expenditures no doubt sealed Leno’s victory. While state law limits contributions to a candidate’s formal campaign committee, courts have held that independent-expenditure committees can raise and spend unlimited amounts so long as they do not use such “magic words” as “elect this candidate” or “oppose that candidate.” Fat cats can therefore spend freely for advertisements that proclaim their chosen candidate supports the troops, or that or his or her opponent is no friend of America’s heroes. More than $100 million in independent expenditures has been spent in California races since 2001.
“Independent expenditures are very frustrating,” Johnson says. “There is no question about it.”
Voters often assume the ads produced by these shadowy committees are paid for by the individual contributions to candidates, but they are actually funded by one person or a select few with narrow special interests. The FPPC’s concerns about the fairness of California elections was summed up in the June report “Independent Expenditures: The Great Gorilla in Campaign Finance.”
After thanking them for including so many Orange County references in the report that focused on the 2006 election cycle, Johnson replies, “It just happened that way,” while Porter adds, “We just looked where the action was.”
Orange County was indeed a hotbed. Supervisor-turned-state Senator Lou Correa (D-Santa Ana) was listed among the “Million Dollar Babies,” the handful of candidates who for the first time in state history received more than $1 million each in independent expenditures. Correa benefitted from $1.1 million in independent expenditures in the June primary against Tom Umberg and another $1.2 million in the November general election against Republicans Lynn Daucher and Otto Bade, who received independent expenditures from the same committee that funded Correa, split the vote with Daucher and watched Correa ultimately win the race. The report also outed state Senator Tom Harman (R-Huntington Beach) for having received $75,000 in ’06 from the committee that ranked No. 1 among “The 10 Fattest Cats”: the Pechanga Band of Luiseño Indians, which doled out $6,832,600 from 2001 to 2006. Calls to Correa and Harman seeking comment for this story were not returned.
After identifying and recommending ways to deal with independent-expenditure committees, the FPPC discovered an alarming new trend since the June primary: the rise of another shadowy layer of influence, subcommittees tied to the independent-expenditure committees. Where the mothership committee may be known as “Americans for Truth, Justice and the American Way,” its subs often include candidate names (i.e., “Teachers for Assemblyman Joe Blow” or “Educators United Against Jane Doe”). By law, Assemblyman Blow cannot coordinate with any independent committee or subcommittee, but knowing they exist and are seeded with gobs of cash could embolden Blow and chill Doe.
As a result, on Oct. 16, the commission weighed strengthening its regulations to, as Johnson put it, “let sunshine in.” The sweeping proposals would force the title of committees controlled by a candidate to include his or her name, the office being sought and the year of the election. Independent-expenditure committees set up primarily to support or oppose a candidate would also have to include the candidate’s last name, the office sought, year of the election and whether the committee is for or against the candidate. All committees would have to disclose who their top contributors are, the amounts of their donations in descending order, and the identities of the top decision-makers. As one recommendation puts it, “Politicians and major donors may have an interest in disguising their involvement in a campaign if voters would react negatively knowing how extensively they are involved.” A public-comment period has opened in advance of the commission’s formal vote on the proposals as early as December.
“The whole idea is so the press and public can figure out who these people are,” Johnson says.
“One thing Ross has really brought to the agency is making sure there is more transparency,” Roman Porter says. “The commission has done a better job of informing the media under Ross’ leadership.”
Says that anonymous lawyer, “Roman’s leadership style is much more outgoing and press-friendly than previous executive directors’ have been. That is a reflection of Ross Johnson.”
Johnson jokes that he is trying to make it easier to “follow the money” because reporters rate poring through campaign records right up there with “trimming toenails.”
Ross Johnson: Friend of the media. Who knew?
“I’m always saying that a free democracy has nothing to fear from a free press.”
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“I truly don’t believe public financing can work in a state like California because of the size of legislative districts—the biggest congressional districts in the country—and the potential for gaming the system,” says Johnson, when asked if taxpayer-funded elections would level the playing field.
His rationale: Regulation would be a nightmare given the number of races in a state with 58 counties and 500-plus cities. Would taxpayers fund the serious and non-serious candidates? (Remember Gary Coleman for governor?) What about candidates who would receive public financing for a high-profile race simply to build name recognition for lower office? Or those who run to raise awareness of their pet issue? “All you have to do is look at the presidential level,” Johnson says. “Lyndon LaRouche got $1 million in public financing while he was in prison, for goodness sake, running for president of the United States!”
As Johnson says, “It’s free money,” and it would also have to be paid to candidates lavished with thousands, even millions, in independent expenditures.
“I had in the legislature, at one point in time, an open mind on public financing, a quarter-century ago,” he says. “But I’m troubled by the idea of having your money used by people you fundamentally disagree with.”
It must be killing Johnson that a pilot project for public financing in the next Secretary of State race essentially guts the public-financing ban voters approved in his Prop. 73, Alexander says. “It happened so long ago, but I imagine he’s not too happy about that. He has very strong feelings about public financing. I don’t get a sense his feelings come from partisanship; it’s more a matter of principle.”
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One Ross Johnson story is part of Capitol lore.
During a marathon budget lockdown early in his Assembly career, he was with about 30 members of the Republican caucus huddled in the Rules Committee room when someone came up with the bright idea of bringing in a blender to make gin fizzes to break the monotony. As the, ahem, deliberations were raging, word came down that the now-late Lou Papan had suddenly called a meeting of the Rules Committee, which the Democrat and so-called “Dean of the Assembly” chaired. The Republicans hastily hid the blender and paper cups, but they forgot to unplug the appliance, someone tripped over the cord, and its contents spilled all over the room. Johnson’s GOP colleagues beat a hasty retreat, but he had to stay behind as a member of the Rules Committee. That left him to be the target of Papan’s ire over the “disgraceful” condition of the room. The berating went on for some time, with Papan repeatedly calling Johnson “a drunk.” Reporters covering the hearing had no idea what had transpired as they walked into the room just in time to hear Johnson tell Papan, “No, I am not a drunk, but if I were, I’d be sober tomorrow and you’d still be an asshole.”
That marked the only reference to Johnson Time magazine ever printed. And how could you blame them? As he said at the conference table, “I was pretty strident in being an accurate reflection of the districts I represented.” But Johnson’s sense of fairness made him more than just another partisan Republican hack out of Orange County.
As a member of the Elections Committee, Johnson was ready to stick to his law-and-order principles by supporting a Republican bill that would have outlawed anyone with a felony record from being a paid worker in a voter-registration drive. When testimony revealed such work was among the few entry-level positions open to ex-cons that would allow them to establish a record of reliability that could lead to better jobs and less chance of recidivism, Johnson led the push to kill the proposal in committee. Late in his career, he confronted the Schwarzenegger administration about the piss-poor condition of California prisons, saying the state’s historic approach to incarceration did not work and more funding for rehabilitation was necessary.
Shortly after taking that stand, Johnson quit politics “cold turkey.” Gearing up for another election that, by the time you read this, will no doubt have produced a slew of new complaints (and $4.5 million and counting in new independent expenditures between June and November), he seemed at peace with his decision to re-enter the fray.
“All the stuff we are doing is trying to move the ball a little,” Johnson says. “Roman and the staff have heard me say over the 21 months I have been here that I want them to be able, at the end of the day, to feel they have done a good job for the people of California. It may sound corny, but that’s it.”
OC Weekly Editor-in-Chief Matt Coker has been engaging, enraging and entertaining readers of newspapers, magazines and websites for decades. He spent the first 13 years of his career in journalism at daily newspapers before “graduating” to OC Weekly in 1995 as the alternative newsweekly’s first calendar editor.