Morain: The growing demand for more pledges

Grover Norquist, the conservative political operative, has made a name for himself by foisting The Pledge on Republican politicians: Oppose tax increases or else.

Democrats attack him for it, and many pundits, including me, blame him and his ilk for much of what's wrong with the body politic. But there is a flip side. Supporters of Democratic politicians offer their own tests and pledges, though they don't use those terms.

Most moneyed interests give detailed questionnaires to candidates. Candidates must answer if they are to have any hope of getting the groups' endorsements and money. But unlike Norquist, who publicly identifies politicians who sign the no-tax pledge, most questionnaires remain an insider's game. That should change.

Questionnaires are hardly new. But they are proliferating in this term-limited era in which a third or more of the Legislature turns over in any given election cycle. Realtors, trial lawyers, unions and the other interest groups want to know who they're dealing with, and so they give them ever-more-detailed questionnaires. And 'tis the season, six months before the primary, when candidates fill them out, with counsel from their consultants. Missteps can cost elections.

"The stakes are high in politics. These are an expression of that," said Assemblyman Ken Cooley, D-Rancho Cordova, who filled out several questionnaires when he won his seat in 2012.

Interest groups use the questionnaires to inculcate new candidates to the special interest world they seek to enter. By slanting their questions, they make clear how they see Capitol politics.

Based on its questions, the California Teachers Association doesn't like merit pay, or contracting out: "Will you oppose contracting out public education including online courses?" Caltrans engineers similarly dislike outsourcing. "Will you support legislation to require that public inspectors are on the job to ensure that construction and earthquake standards are met?" the Professional Engineers in California Government questionnaire asks.

The Service Employees International Union, which represents employees in trial courts, asks whether candidates would "prioritize a reinvestment in the trial court where essential services to the public is provided," rather than "massive spending on an IT project, gold-plated pensions for top executives . . . and lavish construction." The SEIU questionnaire is a 13-page tome. The union, which represents most state workers, asks candidates if they would walk picket lines if they were elected, support health care coverage for "all Californians regardless of immigration status" and "actively oppose the contracting out of services that can be performed by public employees."

Then there are the pension questions, including one about a potential 2012 ballot initiative by San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed. Reed's initiative could lead to reduced pensions by public employees and larger contributions to their retirement.

"Mayor Chuck Reed has embarked on a push for a statewide pension initiative that would for the first time go after benefits of current public employees, eliminating the 'California Rule' upheld by courts as well as reduce collective bargaining rights in major ways. Will you actively oppose the pending measure?"

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