Schiff's Campaign Finance Fight Is Inspired by Own History

Two years after running in what one writer called the "politico ad absurdum of our times," California Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff looks back at his record spending in the 2000 congressional race with dismay, and says the experience made him an apostle of campaign finance reform.

"It was not pleasant in the least," Schiff told of his "battle royale" against incumbent Republican Rep. James Rogan, in a race that so far has gone down as the most expensive ever waged for a House seat.

Both men raised and spent more than $11 million in the match-up that pits state Sen. Schiff, with his liberal Hollywood backers, against Rogan, who earned scorn from that same set for serving as an impeachment manager in the Senate trial against former President Bill Clinton.

When the smoke cleared, Schiff beat Rogan 53 to 44 percent.

Schiff now says that his district -- the affluent and middle-class black and immigrant communities just outside Los Angeles, including Pasadena, Burbank and Glendale -- has had time to heal from those divisive days; he is inspired to support effective campaign finance reform.

"I see it as a very positive way that I could turn that experience into concrete, positive change," he said.

With the aid of Rep. Mark Steven Kirk, R-Ill., Schiff helped forge a group of pro-campaign finance reform House freshman to help corral the votes needed to pass the eponymous campaign finance bill sponsored by Reps. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., and Martin Meehan, D-Mass.

The measure was a companion piece to the campaign finance bill sponsored by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Sen. Russell Feingold, D-Wis., and signed into law last March.

"I told him I would be happy to be his poster child," Schiff said of McCain, who liked to refer to Schiff's 2000 race as an example of campaign spending run amok.

But not everyone sees the virtue of Schiff’s reform crusade. His Republican opponent in the November race, attorney James Scileppi, points out that Schiff's new views on campaign finance have not filtered into his fund-raising habits.

"It's hard to talk seriously about campaign finance reform when you have set the high bar on campaign spending," argued Scileppi, who had raised no money and had no cash on hand according to elections filings from June, the latest quarterly summary of campaign spending available.

Scileppi called his campaign a "grassroots" effort to cut back on big government bureaucracy, but political observers say this race is not going to be anywhere near the contest won by Schiff in 2000.

According to Schiff's June Federal Election Commission filing, the California congressman has raised $843,000 in the current election cycle, 40 percent coming in from political action committees. His biggest donors are from labor unions, trial lawyers and the entertainment industry. 

Scileppi said he is troubled by Schiff's appeal for campaign finance reform not only because of constitutional questions but because it makes it harder for unknown challengers like himself to run.

"It really doesn't do anything to bring people better choices -- it ensures that incumbents will remain in office and their challengers never get any exposure," said Scileppi, who has lost twice before to Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., in the 29th District that Schiff is now inheriting through redistricting. Waxman is moving to the 30th District.

Campaign finance reform, which bans soft money to the national parties and third-party-sponsored issue ads 30 days before elections, is already sitting in court, a target of critics who say it violates free speech rights.

It "is just one step in a process that must go on," Schiff said of the court case. "I think it's dreadful that it is necessary."

For his part, Schiff, a former prosecutor for the U.S. Attorney General's Office, is willing to wait it out. As a member of the influential Judiciary and International Relations committees, he said he is immersed in national security and foreign geo-political strategy issues following the Sept. 11 attacks.

Domestically, he is pushing for improved services and benefits for the federal Head Start child development program up for reauthorization next year. He was also an initial sponsor of the Democratic Patients' Bill of Rights in 2000, a stalled legislative effort that he hopes to see reach fruition.

Kim Ruby, spokeswoman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, called Schiff a "rising star" in the party, while fellow Californian Rep. Brad Sherman, who took part of Schiff’s Burbank district away because of redistricting, praised him for his "dedication and intelligence."

"He will be a tough act to follow," said Sherman.

While Schiff says it will be a relief not to have to engage in a redux of the 2000 race, he plans on hitting the pavement hard to get his message across to voters.

"Happily, it's not going to be the big spending battle royale it was. But I am [by] no means going to be complacent," he said.