In May 2006, Dick Simpson, a longtime fixture in and around Chicago politics, wrote a paper titled “From Daley to Daley: Chicago Politics from 1995-2006.” Simpson, who was then a professor in the Department of Political Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago, wrote that he was working on a book that would describe “the last of the great urban political machines in America and the birth of a new globalized political machine with its permanent campaign and high-tech politics and government, but with the same old-fashioned patronage, nepotism, and corruption which characterized the first Daley Machine.”
The state of California is run by a one-party government that increasingly resembles the machine that dominated Chicago. Consider, for example, the announcement last week that Assemblymember Mia Bonta will chair the legislative committee responsible for overseeing the budget of the California Department of Justice, which is headed by Attorney General Rob Bonta.
Rob Bonta is a former member of the Assembly. He was appointed by Gov. Gavin Newsom to fill the vacancy created when then-Attorney General Xavier Becerra left to join the Biden administration in 2021. That’s when Bonta’s wife ran for and won his open Assembly seat in a special election. CalMatters reported that Attorney General Bonta’s campaign committee donated $14,940 to Mia Bonta’s campaign for Assembly.
None of this is illegal in California. A husband in a powerful office can raise campaign funds from special interests and his campaign can donate the money to his wife’s campaign for office, and then his wife can chair the committee that is supposed to be the watchdog over the budget and spending of her husband’s office, which in this case is in charge of enforcing state laws.
Another married couple enjoying the nepotism of wedded bliss is Governor Gavin Newsom and his wife, First Partner Jennifer Siebel Newsom.
On Jan. 18, 2019, soon after being sworn in as governor, Mr. Newsom created a new office in the California government that he named “Office of the First Partner.” Ms. Siebel Newsom’s new office was staffed with “two senior public servants,” according to a news release issued by the governor’s office, a 32-year-old chief of staff at a starting salary of $145,000 and a 28-year-old director of communications paid $100,000 annually. The positions did not require Senate confirmation.
“I am excited to use this platform to continue advocating for gender equality across our great state,” Ms. Siebel Newsom, a documentary film producer, was quoted as saying. “The work of the Office of the First Partner will be about inclusivity, breaking down old stereotypes, and forging a new more equitable path forward.”
Ending “harmful gender norms and stereotypes” also happens to be the mission of The Representation Project, a nonprofit organization that lists Ms. Siebel Newsom as founder, chief creative officer and board member. The Representation Project engages in activism through “hashtag campaigns,” publishes “impact reports,” and makes films that are screened, for a fee, in public schools. The organization’s IRS tax return for 2020 shows that it paid Ms. Siebel Newsom a salary of $150,000. The Sacramento Bee reported that between 2011 and 2018, when Gov. Newsom was lieutenant governor, The Representation Project paid Ms. Siebel Newsom $2.3 million in salary, while at the same time collecting five- and six-figure donations from companies with business before the state, including Pacific Gas & Electric, AT&T, Comcast and Kaiser Permanente.
In 2020, Ms. Siebel-Newsom launched the California Partners Project, which is described on its website as a nonprofit 501(c)(4) organization that works “in partnership with the people of California,” specifically by “harnessing the ingenuity of all its people to lead the nation and the world in addressing the challenges of gender equity and the impact of media and technology on child development.”
The 2021 annual report of the California Partners Project describes the organization as “partnered with” The Representation Project. The report notes that “partner is a power position” and vows “even closer collaboration with the Office of the First Partner” to “leverage all the resources we can muster….”
There was a lot of harnessing and leveraging of the governor’s power to raise money through “behested payments,” a uniquely California form of legalized extortion. Elected officials are allowed to ask individuals, companies, unions or other entities to make a donation for a particular “charitable” or “governmental” purpose. “Behested payments” that total more than $5,000 in a year must be reported, but there is no ceiling on how much an official may request. Reports show that in 2021 and 2022, Gov. Newsom “behested” $1,671,680 for his wife’s California Partners Project.
Similarly, Attorney General Rob Bonta made use of the power to “behest” contributions from companies with business before the state when he was in the Assembly. After Mia Bonta founded a nonprofit called Literacy Lab in 2014, her husband helped to fund it by “behesting” Pacific Gas & Electric out of $3,500 in 2015 and another $6,500 in 2016.
CalMatters reported that Rob Bonta created the Bonta California Progress Foundation in 2017, “behested” $75,000 from “interest groups that lobby him at the Capitol,” and in 2018 donated $25,000 to his wife’s nonprofit. Literacy Lab’s IRS tax return for 2018 shows that Mia Bonta’s annual compensation that year was $142,866.
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Between 2013 and 2020, then-Assemblymember Rob Bonta “behested” more than $5.8 million from unions, banks, health care companies, tech giants and others for various purposes.
It’s all legal, and he should know. He’s now the state’s top law enforcement officer.
And just as in Chicago in the heyday of Mayor Richard J. Daley, or in New York during the Tammany Hall reign of William M. “Boss” Tweed, there’s no check on the powerful pols of California, who can use their positions to strengthen the dominance of their machines by handing out patronage to friends and dishing out consequences to enemies.
Is this the “new globalized political machine with its permanent campaign and high-tech politics and government” that Dick Simpson wrote about at the University of Illinois? Or will California’s political machine break down one day and end up in the Great Recycle Bin of history?
It may depend on whether they ever fix the potholes.
Write Susan@SusanShelley.com or follow her on Twitter @Susan_Shelley