Wealthy Political Movers: Meet the Secret Boss of California

Attorney and educational activist Molly Munger is just one example of really wealthy political neophytes who are becoming a new breed of Artie Samish-- the master lobbyist of the 1940s and 50s.

Billionaire hedge-fund manager Tom Steyer is another.

Munger and Steyer have both committed millions of dollars of their own money to promote tax initiatives on the November ballot. And both are going head-to-head against Governor Jerry Brown’s own tax proposal.

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Not that there’s anything wrong with that. (Well…actually there is something wrong with that.)

For those of you who aren’t California political history geeks, Samish notoriously used his clients’ copious resources to strong-arm—or skirt–California’s legislators, to push his policy agenda.

Samish famously boasted, “I am the governor of the legislature. To hell with the governor of California.”

And, on occasion, when that didn’t work, he turned to the initiative process to get his way.

That’s not so different from attempts by other well-heeled, unelected movers to shape public policy in their own images.

When asked by a reporter why she wouldn’t acquiesce to Brown’s request to pull her competing tax proposal, Munger, whose brother Charles Munger bankrolled successful redistricting reform initiatives, replied, “I don’t think we have a good functioning democracy if we let the person on the top get what he wants.”

Did Ms. Munger forget that Californians chose “the person at the top” to guide policy by dint of his election?

State Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg told NBC4’s Conan Nolan, “Molly Munger may be well intentioned, but she’s not accountable to anyone.” She’s “someone who is wealthy, who believes in what she believes, but is trying to override the governor.”

Sure, Democrat Steinberg has his own political agenda.

And Governor Brown, like political leaders before him, has himself channeled Samish’s arrogance on occasion.

Take the recent moves by Brown and his Democratic legislative allies to try to ensure a high ballot placement for the governor's tax initiative. Munger, whose competing measure would be in a less prominent spot, is challenging their maneuvers in court.

Samish had similar respect for ballot positioning, writing in his memoir that it “pays to be on the top of the ballot.”

“How did I get the high position?” Samish wrote. “Well, I had a lot of good friends in Sacramento.”

It’s not that rich “do-as-I say-do-gooders” are corrupt—as Samish was ultimately proved to be. They’re not.

But their egocentric power over the path of public policy provides another example of the dangerous perversion of the initiative process.

Conceived as a means for ordinary Californians to break the stranglehold of special interests on state government, the process first morphed into a tool for powerful interests to circumvent the Governor and legislators completely.

Now it’s a stratagem for loaded individuals who don't like the direction our duly-elected representatives are taking to single-handedly attempt to put their own imprimaturs on the policy process.

The political gamesmanship engaged in by all sides in the tax initiative war cannot help but turn an electorate soured on government even more sour—while the state remains mired in fiscal crisis.

Artie Samish would have appreciated that.

Sherry Bebitch Jeffe is a Senior Fellow at the USC Price School of Public Policy and the political analyst for NBC4.

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