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Wealthy donor's passion project is redistricting - but will voters care?

Yes on 20, No on 27 campaign

California's turbulent election history is spotted with the failed ambitions of wealthy donors who have funded ballot measures – pet projects that, however good the intentions, ended up rejected by voters.

This year, a couple from Palo Alto – physicist Charles Munger and attorney Charlotte Lowell – have joined this small crowd of rich individuals spearheading ballot initiatives as a personal passion rather than as passive donors. Whether they find success remains to be seen on Nov. 2.

Munger has contributed nearly $11 million from his fortune to support Proposition 20, which would require congressional districts to be drawn by a 14-member panel instead of by the state Legislature. He is also funding an effort to defeat Proposition 27, which would eliminate a citizens' redistricting panel now in place to draw legislative districts.

A spokeswoman for Munger's committee said he is passionate about giving voters the power to hold politicians accountable – by eliminated their right of lawmakers to carved out districts that virtually assure re-election for themselves or their party.

"He’s a physicist by trade, but he’s extremely interested in this issue," said Susan Shafer, spokeswoman for the Yes on 20, No on 27 campaign. Munger has donated the vast majority of the funding for the campaign, while Lowell's contribution is about $950,000.

Because they have given so much money and spearheaded the campaign, Munger's and Lowell's names must appear at the end of TV and radio ads for the campaigns – a rare instance of specific donors being highlighted rather than vague-sounding coalitions.

And, with that in mind, the campaign to defeat Proposition 20 is already using Munger as a foil. In the voter guide from the California Secretary of State's office, the opposition campaign derisively describes him as "Munger Junior," because his wealth is inherited. Proposition 20 …

is the brainchild of Charles Munger, Jr. – son of multi–billionaire Wall Street tycoon Charles Munger. MUNGER JUNIOR IS THE SOLE BANK–ROLLER OF 20. (Well, four other contributors have given all of $700.) But just for its qualification, MUNGER GAVE $3.3 MILLION, a figure that will probably multiply many times by Election Day.

But if Proposition 20 passes, the taxpayers will start paying the bills instead of Munger Junior. Prop. 20 will cost us millions of dollars. Compare Prop. 20 with its rival, Prop. 27.

… AND NOW WITH PROP. 20, MUNGER JUNIOR WANTS TO MAKE THIS WASTEFUL BUREAUCRACY SPRAWL EVEN FURTHER AT THE EXTRA EXPENSE OF YOU, THE TAXPAYER.

In a year when voters are angry at politicians, Munger and Lowell may prove successful at stripping away some of their power. But consider the fate of other wealthy Californians – many, like Munger, heirs to fortunes they did not create – who have used the state's ballot to advance causes:

  • Real estate heir and Hollywood producer Stephen L. Bing unloaded nearly $50 million of his personal fortune to support a 2006 initiative to tax California oil production for research into alternative fuels. Bing saw his project – Proposition 87 – rejected after oil companies launched an expensive campaign to defeat it.
  • University of Phoenix scion Peter V. Sperling spent $9 million of his fortune to require utilities to generate 20 percent of their power from renewable energy by 2010. That initiative from 2008 also failed. 
  • Rob McKay, a philanthropist from San Francisco and heir to the Taco Bell empire, spent at least $5.4 million a 2002 ballot initiative to allow voter registration on Election Day. The measure, Proposition 52, was also rejected by voters.
  • In 2000, Silicon Valley pioneer Al Shugart spent more than $1 million to allow for "none of the above" to appear on California's ballots alongside candidate names, a privilege now extended only to voters in Nevada.
  • Henry T. Nicholas, the founder of Broadcom, spent $1 million backing a failed 2008 initiative that would have boosted spending on police, sheriffs, district attorneys, adult probation, jails and juvenile probation facilities. But Nicholas was successful with Proposition 9 the same year – spending $4.8 million on a victim's rights initiative, Marsy's Law, named after Nicholas's murdered sister.

Kim Alexander, president of the California Voter Foundation, said she has seen numerous initiatives backed by wealthy funders come and go – mostly go.

"You can't win an initiative without money, but you can't win with only money," Alexander said. "It takes not only money but coalitions, grassroots support and a good organization."

It's easy to judge the motives of campaigns funded by, say, a public employee union or the Chamber of Commerce. But voters may ask themselves this year: Who, exactly, are Charles Munger and Charlotte Lowell?

Munger is a physicist at Stanford University, while his wife is a lawyer with the powerful New York law firm, Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher and Flom. She graduated from Harvard Law School and the University of Notre Dame. They married in 1989, and their wedding announcement appeared in the New York Times.

And Munger is, indeed, rich. He's one of eight children of billionaire Charlie Munger, vice chairman of Berkshire Hathaway, the holding company operated by Warren Buffett and which is invested in GEICO, See’s Candies, Fruit of the Loom and Dairy Queen, among other companies. Forbes magazine lists Charlie's worth at $1.7 billion.

As for the son, Munger's success as a donor to California initiative campaigns – all related to various election reforms – has been mixed so far.

Munger donated $1 million to Proposition 11, which created the 14-member Citizens Redistricting Commission that he's now trying to protect from elimination. He spent $150,000 to help defeat Proposition 93, which would have altered California's term limits law. He was a major contributor to Proposition 62, the failed 2004 constitutional amendment allowing primary voters to cross party lines, and he gave $100,000 to another redistricting campaign in 2005 that failed.

Although he's a Republican, Munger has made a conscious efforts to donate to good-government initiatives rather than participate in ideological fights within his own party. The West Hollywood Democratic Club and Beverly Hills Democratic Club paid for a No on 20, Yes on 27 advertisement to be run on YouTube.

“I would’ve been very welcome in Republican circles if I decided to go chuck 10 million in a bunch of races up and down the state to fight for Republican control of Congress,” Munger told the The Bay Citizen recently. “It isn’t a worthy ambition compared to doing this."

 

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