By Emily Hoeven
Meet the biggest spending group of mega donors trying to reshape California politics you’ve probably never heard of.
Govern For California’s 18 chapters have so far donated more than $3 million to candidates across California in the 2022 election cycle. One of the top beneficiaries: Assembly member Robert Rivas, a Salinas Democrat.
Rivas isn’t facing an especially tough reelection campaign, but he has plenty of ways to spend the $116,000 he’s received from 16 Govern For California chapters in the past 14 months.
Since May, he’s been jockeying to become the next speaker of the Assembly, a powerful position that helps shape the Legislature’s policy agenda and influences which bills stand a chance of making it into law. But Rivas is making his move over the objections of the current man in the top job, Anthony Rendon, a Lakewood Democrat who said as recently as Tuesday he has no plans to step down.
Both are now wooing current and incoming members as Rivas tries to take the crown and Rendon tries to hold onto it.
And, as a new CalMatters analysis of Govern For California’s campaign spending reveals, Rivas has friends in high places.
Govern For California is mostly funded by a small group of tech leaders, financiers and other wealthy donors from the Bay Area. Their goal: Counter the sway of special interests, especially labor unions, in the state Capitol.
The organization is the brainchild of Stanford lecturer David Crane. One of its longtime political advisors is Rick Rivas, Robert’s brother.
My colleagues Ben Christopher and Alexei Koseff spoke to eight campaign finance experts for this story. Some said Govern For California’s network of chapters — which are legally independent and can each raise $8,100 per donor per year, but which communicate, coordinate and often donate to the same candidates on the same day — pushes the envelope of California campaign finance law.
- Ann Ravel, former head of the Federal Election Commission and California’s campaign finance agency: “This seems to be contrary to the spirit of the idea of having contribution limitations.”
Ravel said the structure was similar to the way many unions spend their money, but other experts said this represents something brand new in California politics.
- Election and campaign finance lawyer Amber Maltbie: “This is totally different than anything I’ve seen before … it’s a very creative way to maximize electoral strength.”
Though Crane refused to answer Ben and Alexei’s questions for this story, he objected to the premise that what Govern For California is doing is at all novel and said he got the idea from — of all places — labor unions.
- Crane wrote in an email: “For too long, only special interests organized political activity in Sacramento. The only thing that’s new is that, in 2011, someone started organizing for the general interest.”
Crane, Rick Rivas and Robert Rivas all declined to answer questions about whether they were using the Govern For California network to advance Robert Rivas’ leadership ambitions in the Legislature. A spokesperson for Rendon also declined to comment. Crane and several donors to Govern For California are also financial supporters of CalMatters, which retains full authority over editorial content and makes news judgments independent of donor support.