What do Leland Yee’s transgressions, “House of Cards,” and the Supreme Court decision gutting campaign finance laws have in common?
I watched the last installment, second season, of “House of Cards,” where the brilliant but corrupt Vice President Frank Underwood, has connived and murdered his way to become President of the United States. That was the night before the Leland Yee scandal erupted full blast. Underwood, played by Kevin Spacey, declares he is more interested in power than money. But the man who helps him achieve his goal is the money broker in D.C. Leland Yee, former school board member, San Francisco supervisor, assemblyman and suspended state senator, wanted to be San Francisco’s mayor but failed, saw his Senate seat eliminated by redistricting and hoped to stay in politics by becoming secretary of state. His dream of remaining in public office is dead. And he’s lucky if he escapes prison time. His disease — the need for cash to finance political ambition.
Every politician has the same disease but most are smart enough to avoid being caught in “pay to play.” The U.S. Supreme Court has just made that disease more deadly if not overwhelming for the body politic. Has American politics gotten so rotten that a cynical TV series resonates? Now the very rich face few restraints on how much money they can invest in candidates to buy influence. We already see the results of lax regulations traced to contributions and the influence of lobbyists.
In 2006, I wrote a column called “Follow the Money” which criticized Yee for his bill to allow pseudo slot machines at race tracks followed by major contributions from those who would benefit most. His staff denied he was engaged in “pay to play.” The San Francisco Chronicle recently reviewed his voting record in the Assembly and state Senate and found several instances where his actions were counter to constituents best interests but earned him major donations. While Yee’s behavior has been a disservice to the citizens he is supposed to serve and a disgrace to a usually clean San Mateo County political establishment, the impacts of his actions are mild compared to others.
Republican Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker signed legislation last year which allowed latitude in the construction of a $1.5 billion open pit ore mine, adjacent to a tributary of the Bad River, a vast water rich ecosystem. The law permits the company to fill in pristine streams and ponds with mine waste and has eliminated the usual public hearings before a permit is issued. Company executives and other mine supporters have donated a total of $15 million to Walker and Republican legislators.
Remember the chemical spill which infected the water supply of Charleston, W.Va. in January? We now know that spill resulted from loosening of regulations and cutting funds from the state’s regulators. According to The New Yorker, West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, a day before the spill, criticized federal environmental regulations and vowed” I will never back down from the E.P.A. because of its misguided policies on coal.” He is not alone. Most politicians in the state are beholden to the coal industry and its political contributions, including Democrat U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, the former governor.
The recent Supreme Court decision, which knocked down another campaign finance limit, will “allow power to collect around any member (of Congress) who can command a national or regional base of wealthy donors.” (New York Times quoting a lobbyist). “Lawmakers who are the most responsive to special interests and ideologies will reel in the biggest donations … thereby gaining more power.” Some call it bribery. Others, including Chief Justice Roberts, call it free speech. State Sen. Leland Yee was small potatoes.
Shanna McClearn is one of the few women today involved in startups, a field dominated by young men. But she expects more women to take the plunge. She and her business partner Eli Nir founded Filey, in downtown San Mateo. Filey is an iPhone and iPad app that gives you access to all your email attachments from all your mailboxes, and saves time and frustration with managing attachments. It’s available in the Apple App Store and is free for users with public email domains and is $5/month or $50/year for users with private email domains. The original investor was Will Chang who owns the building where McClearn works. Nir was the innovator and McClearn the CFO providing finance and operation expertise for the business to succeed and grow. She has been helped by the Chamber of Commerce’s Edge Program which encourages startups to locate in downtown San Mateo. In May, Edge will celebrate local innovators.
Sue Lempert is the former mayor of San Mateo. Her column runs every Monday. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.