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Saturday, Jun 22 2013 11:00 PM

Campaign consultants ought to be licensed

By The Bakersfield Californian

We've become inured to the fact that during the course of a campaign one side will invariably pull an underhanded trick on the other side. That doesn't mean we should simply shrug it off as the cost of doing business in America.

We may reasonably assume that dirty campaigns beget dirty politicians. If we go after disreputable elected officials with all due vigor, shouldn't we, with equal determination, try to root out and flay the tricksters behind these assaults on integrity and democracy? That's easier said than done, of course, when an almost-anything-goes culture of falsehood and exaggeration so thoroughly permeates political campaigns. But do the lies have to be this blatant and the penalties so inconsequential?

It's time that California, perhaps through the Secretary of State's office or the Fair Political Practices Commission, consider ways to more vigorously monitor the behavior of campaign consultants. Establish standards of competence and ethical conduct and hold them to those standards. License them.

We don't have to look far or long to find instances of poor judgment, ineptitude or intention misrepresentation that might have affected an election. The latest example -- we don't know which category is appropriate -- is the campaign mailer suggesting that Bakersfield City Council candidate Willie Rivera, the eventual winner of the vacant Ward 1 seat, accepted a $60,000 campaign donation from Michael Rubio, the former state senator who is now something of a persona non grata for having resigned halfway into his first term to take a lobbying job with Chevron. In truth, Rivera, a former Rubio staffer and fellow Democrat, accepted $15,000 from Rubio is three $5,000 donations.

The focus of speculation about the source of the misinformation has fallen on Efren Martinez, who finished a distant second to Rivera. Martinez was something of a novice in this brass-knuckles fight, but his consultant, Western Pacific Research, has been cited for campaign misdeeds and oversights many times previously by the state Fair Political Practices Commission. The only name on the suspect flier, which went out four days before the June 4 special election, was Voters for Good Government.

That group is not listed as an active political action committee on the California Secretary of State's website.

However, Martinez has been linked to Saving Local Jobs PAC, a committee that's not listed on the Secretary of State's website, either. A separate mailer produced by Saving Local Jobs -- bearing the slogan "Democrats Support Efren Martinez" -- featured a testimonial supposedly penned by Martinez's son, who lives in Southern California.

Misrepresenting the contributions of one's opponent and manufacturing officially nonexistent PACs are small potatoes as far as campaign violations are concerned. Such tactics are, in fact, borderline routine. If the FPPC, which is investigating, actually finds fault and issues a fine, the guilty parties, whoever they may be, will likely accept the citation with all the remorse of a parking ticket recipient.

Part of the problem is that campaign consultants are not required to register as such with any oversight organization or agency. They're less regulated than your lawn-care guy, and yet they play a role, sometimes a very big role, in the outcome of elections -- i.e., that aspect of democracy that, more than anything else, makes it democracy.

Lobbyists must register with the state. Political action committees must register with the state. Campaign contributions are monitored and regulated by the state. Shouldn't campaign consulting firms, or their principals -- who are essentially paid lobbyists for political candidates -- also be compelled to register and abide by accepted standards of fair play and basic levels of competence? Professional sports leagues require players' agents to register and abide by ethical standards. The job of a campaign consultant isn't all that different.

Registering campaign consulting organizations wouldn't put an end to campaign shenanigans. Look at how effective the registration of lobbyists has put an end to tit-for-tat deal-making. But it would apply a level of responsibility and accountability that hasn't been there before.

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