In summary

Two state senators and a group of District Attorneys say thanks, but no thanks to campaign contributions from unions representing law enforcement officers.

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As the wave of protests over incidents of police brutality and racist policing enters its second week, progressive California politicians are rethinking their financial relationship with the unions that represent law enforcement officers. 

On Thursday, state Sen. Scott Wiener of San Francisco, a Democrat, announced on Twitter that he would no longer be accepting campaign contributions from police, sheriff and prison guard unions. He promised to donate roughly $20,000 he has received from such labor groups to date to nonprofits that serve Bay Area youth. 

Sen. Lena Gonazalez of Long Beach, also a Democrat, responded with a tweet of her own: “Same!”

Earlier this week, three county prosecutors and George Gascon, who is campaigning to become  district attorney of Los Angeles, wrote a letter to the state bar association urging the organization to prohibit D.A. candidates from receiving campaign contributions from law enforcement unions. 

“Policing is in need of serious reform and it’s important to me that my constituents understand that I am willing to fight for that reform,” Wiener said in a phone interview today. He noted that he was inspired by New York state Sen. Michael Gianaris, who announced he would be redirecting contributions from police officer unions to bail funds and nonprofits. He was joined by seven other lawmakers.  

Wiener said he had heard from other California legislators expressing interest in following suit, but declined to name names,  saying that he would rather leave it to them.

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Brian Marvel, president of the Peace Officers Research Association of California, a federation of law enforcement unions, called the announcement by the two senators “completely understandable” given a political environment in which, he said, police officers “are being piled on right now.”

“It’s the decision they need to make based on where they are and how they feel and I’m just hoping this doesn’t sour our relationship in that they aren’t willing to work with us in the future,” he said.

Though progressive politicians rarely endear themselves to the organized labor groups that represent police officers, sheriffs and prison guards, something seems to have shifted over the last week. A much broader ideological swath of the country’s institutions, elected leaders and the public at large have embraced the need for reform — even over the objections of rank-and-file law enforcement.

Organized labor groups representing service workers, teachers and health care workers are big spenders in California elections. Most of their money winds up backing Democratic candidates. Law enforcement spending is typically more mixed.

The public renunciation of campaign cash from cops is the first indication that for progressive politicians, law enforcement could join the likes of “Big Oil” or “Big Tobacco” — political interests deemed so toxic to some left-leaning voters that some lawmakers feel compelled to turn their free money away. 

Wiener disputed that comparison, saying his decision was simply about communicating to his constituents that he is “deeply committed to this fight.” He also stressed that his decision was personal and that he was “not judging” his colleagues who continue to receive money from police groups. 

Jackie Fielder, who is challenging Wiener for his senate seat this November, pledged to reject contributions from law enforcement unions early on in her campaign. In a press release issued in response to Wiener’s announcement, her campaign said the incumbent senator had “conceded” the point. 

Since 2017, the Peace Officers Research Association has spent more than $2.6 million in support of candidates for office, political parties or other election-related groups, both in direct contributions and in independent spending. That includes $605,000 to the California Democratic Party; $152,500 to the state GOP; $40,000 to the Legislature’s LGBT Caucus, which includes Sen. Wiener; and $32,000 to Californians for Jobs and a Strong Economy, a political action committee that supports moderate Democrats.

Election spending from labor groups representing police officers might spike in the coming months. Earlier this week Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti proposed redirecting up to $150 million away from the police department budget to fund jobs and public health programs. The pushback has been fierce. 

In a video recorded by an LAPD officer and shared by CBSN reporter Jasmine Viel, police officers can be seen lacing into Los Angeles Councilwoman Monica Rodriguez. “I promise you this union will go to its grave fighting,” said Jerretta Sandoz, vice president of the Los Angeles Police Protective League. “We’re going to fight.” 

From off camera someone else speaks up: “At the ballot box.”

Police unions’ “power to raise and dispense large amounts of campaign cash has warped the electoral process and has slowed or blocked reasonable efforts to hold officers accountable for bad performance,” the Los Angeles Times declared this week in an editorial supporting prohibitions against candidates accepting contributions from such unions.

Others contend that kind of reasoning deserves to be applied to other public employee union contributions as well.

“Isn’t that the same roadmap used by teachers’ unions seeking to elect school board members?” asked Joel Fox, adjunct professor at Pepperdine University’s Graduate School of Public Policy, in a CalMatters op-ed.

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Ben Christopher

Ben covers California politics and elections. Prior to that, he was a contributing writer for CalMatters reporting on the state's economy and budget. Based out of the San Francisco Bay Area, he has written...