Todd Spitzer on the Road to Damascus

April 14, 2012

By Steven Greenhut

If a politician has based his career on advocating a set of policies, and has always been aligned with a group of special interests, only a fool would believe that he has suddenly seen the light just at the time when those past policies and alliances are causing him some political grief.

Yet Orange County Republican Party Chairman Scott Baugh last weekend compared supervisorial candidate Todd Spitzer — a Republican with a long track record in the DA’s office, as an Assemblyman and previously as a supervisor and local school board member — to the adulterous woman at the well whom Jesus forgave. This implies that Spitzer has seen the light and is now a reformed man. I think Baugh is being as loose with his endorsements as the woman was with her partners.

Baugh, writing a rebuttal to an Orange County Register editorial that I had penned blasting his decision to headline a fund-raiser for Spitzer, argued: “It’s a good thing that Register editorial writers did not meet the woman at the well mentioned in the biblical book of John. The fact that she had five previous husbands and was living with a man who was not her husband would have doomed her to a life not worth living. Instead, the woman met Jesus, and she became a great messenger for changed lives.”

If we’re talking about a person’s heart, and a religious conversion, then I see what Baugh is talking about. When people change in those ways, I would never question it. That is, as the cliché goes, an issue between a man and his God. But my Register editorial pointed to Spitzer’s long-standing association with the public employee unions and the way that Spitzer led the charge for a 2001 retroactive pension increase that has put Orange County in a deep fiscal hole.

Baugh became well known for his “manifesto” declaring that the party will not give any support to politicians who take donations from unions. Baugh said in a speech trumpeting his edict that it is not enough for Republican politicians to avoid taking such cash. He expects them to be proactive and create solutions to the mess caused by excessive public-employee compensation.

Pension spiking

As I wrote in the Register editorial:

“Mr. Spitzer was the lead advocate on the Board of Supervisors for a 2001 pension increase for deputy sheriffs that retroactively increased their pensions to the unsustainable ‘3 percent at 50’ formula — guaranteeing a pension of 90 percent of a 50-year-old employee’s final year’s pay after 30 years of work.

“Mr. Spitzer since has said he was wrong on that vote but mainly he blames others for not warning him, which suggests that he won’t provide the kind of pension-reform leadership that Mr. Baugh previously said he was expecting from politicians. In the Assembly, Mr. Spitzer was the cat’s-paw for the public-safety unions. He is smart and hardworking, but he epitomizes everything Baugh and the party said it would stand against.”

I recall Spitzer changing his tune about that increase — at one point saying he didn’t know it was retroactive, at another saying he knew it was but believed the deputies deserved the extra taxpayer cash — and remember him defending it to me right up until the point that it became a political liability. Spitzer has publicly talked about a religious conversion he has had, but we’re talking here about a political conversion — and there’s no actual evidence he really has had one.

‘Trust, but verify.’

Ronald Reagan famously said that the United States should “trust, but verify.” He was talking about arms-reduction talks with the Soviet Union. Baugh recently told me that “I’ve had my conversation with Todd and he is a changed man on this issue and many others. He now admits to me that the vote is wrong . … He has committed to me that he will work to reform the system in the same way as [OC Supervisor] Shawn Nelson and others have done.”

But where is the verification? Spitzer has a long history of saying whatever needs to be said to advance his political career. Most politicians do that, but Baugh is one of those people who over the years had warned me about Spitzer and his union alliances and opportunistic ways. The verification would come in some sort of policy decisions, yet there’s little evidence that he has pushed in the right direction not only on the pension issue but on the civil liberties issues that Baugh and others care so much about.

Even in defending Spitzer, Baugh told me that he is bothered by Spitzer’s positions on civil liberties issues. In the Assembly, Spitzer was the lead Republican voice for police-union-backed policies that made it nearly impossible to do anything about those officers who abused their power. When Spitzer was fired from the Orange County District Attorney’s Office, he held his press conference at the deputies’ union headquarters.

He told a colleague of mine that I don’t like him because he was a police officer. That’s right out of the police union playback. If someone disagrees with his views on expanding police pensions or protecting bad-apple officers, then that makes the critic a “cop hater.” I recall an outrageous floor speech Spitzer gave suggesting that supporters of a minor good-government reform were friends of criminals. That type of toxic rhetoric defines Spitzer as well as everything that’s wrong in Sacramento.

Conviction…or convenience?

Sensible people could conclude that Spitzer’s political conversion is one of convenience, not conviction.

And it’s obvious that Spitzer is conforming to the letter, but not the spirit of Baugh’s manifesto. As I wrote in the Register, “Mr. Baugh said that Mr. Spitzer has complied with the manifesto — i.e., he is not taking union money for this race. But Mr. Spitzer has received large amounts of union money over the years. And as his opponents note, he still operates an old political account holding money collected well before Mr. Baugh drew his line in the sand.”

According to former Republican Assemblyman Chuck DeVore, who was running against Spitzer but bailed out after accepting a new job in Texas: “Donations to county office are limited to $1,800 per person or business.  But, Spitzer also has an account for Orange County Republican Party Central Committee — an account that allows unlimited donations.  Spitzer is also his own treasurer for this account, meaning that there is no oversight on how he spends his Central Committee cash.  This Central Committee account Spitzer uses to finance everything from Internet costs, to gasoline, to paying off his credit card, to fancy restaurant meals, to an XM Satellite Radio subscription, and even a trip to Las Vegas.”

DeVore then argued that “Dozens of checks from Big Labor totaling some $54,000 that were listed in Spitzer’s 2014 D.A. committee vanished.  Rather than detail the union money in his 2012 Board of Supervisors account, Spitzer hides it, then shifts it into his unlimited Central Committee account from his, serving as his own treasurer, he can use it to pay for virtually anything, including inappropriately underwriting his current campaign for O.C. Supervisor.”

In other words, he is still using union money, although that money is hidden from view. Spitzer criticized DeVore for pointing this out, telling the OCWeekly, “Chuck needs to learn how to read campaign finance reports.” Spitzer also said, “I’m adhering to [Orange County Republican Party boss] Scott Baugh’s manifesto and will not take any union contributions for my supervisor’s campaign. What Chuck is saying is frivolous. All of my money is traceable.”

But DeVore added that “[W]hen Spitzer thought no one was looking on the eve of the Labor Day weekend, he filed a 519-page amended campaign finance report.  This report contains 189 missing pages of information that Spitzer was legally required to report last month … detailing dozens of Big Labor donations of the type Spitzer denied accepting just a few weeks before.”

Spitzer did not return my call to his home seeking an explanation. Baugh admitted that Spitzer is still using union money, but that Spitzer is indeed following his edict because this is past money. According to Baugh, it would be impossible to hold candidates to the same standard for past financial contributions, but in my view he could insist that they not spend money from labor unions for current campaign-related expenses.

As DeVore told me via email, “Every Californian pays $1,105 every year to support state and local retired government workers — more than double the burden in Texas. Spitzer made this burden worse in his years on the board and in the state Assembly. Spitzer’s talking a good game now, but it will take years of discipline to make up for past mistakes.”

Spitzer is almost certain to win the election. It will be interesting to see what Baugh will have to say if Spitzer reverts to his ways and advocates policies that benefit the unions. I hope Spitzer did indeed have a political conversion, but I think Baugh’s comparison to the adulterous woman at the well might be more apt than he thought, but for less noble reasons.

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