Calif. Dems Get Census TV Time

The U.S. Census is proving to be an election-year publicity boon for California Democrats, who have been blitzing the airwaves in taxpayer-financed ads urging residents to participate.

Thirteen state-level Democrats have appeared in public service announcements urging Californians to fill out their census forms and cooperate with door-to-door counting efforts. Eleven of the 13 are running for the State Assembley or higher office.

The ads were shot and produced in a taxpayer-financed studio in the state Capitol.

Nine Democratic state senators including two facing re-election fights have recorded similar radio public service ads sent to stations in their districts.

No Republican member of the Assembly or Senate has taped such an ad, though they were offered the opportunity.

Last year, the Democratic-controlled Legislature and Democratic Gov. Gray Davis approved spending $24.7 million for census outreach. This month, Davis starred in ads that ran in the state's large media markets.

Davis' 30-second plea appeared during the prime-time Xena: Warrior Princess in Fresno, late-night X-Files reruns in San Diego, and World Wide Wrestling in San Francisco, among other spots.

The governor recorded the ads in his Council Room and they were produced by the California Complete Count Campaign, a state agency.

San Diego viewers saw Spanish-language ads featuring Maria Contreras-Sweet, Davis' secretary of business, transportation and housing. Her department runs the Complete Count Campaign

Democratic Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, a member of the U.S. Census Monitoring Board and the Complete Count Campaign, was in Fresno-area spots.

Aside from Davis, Contreras-Sweet and Bustamante, the Complete Count Campaign stayed away from using politicians, said Ditas Katague, deputy campaign director.

For one thing, many people in typically undercounted communities are distrustful or unimpressed by politicians, Katague said.

For another, featuring politicians in such ads "looks like they're running campaigns" for office, she said.

"The census campaign is not a political campaign," she said.

The members of the Assembly produced their ads independently of the Complete County Campaign.

Elena Stern, a spokeswoman for Antonio Villaraigosa, a Democrat who recently stepped down from the Assembly speakership to run for Los Angeles mayor, said Democrats made full participation in the census a priority.

"That's one of the reasons Mr. Villaraigosa fought for more money to complement federal efforts," she said. Villaraigosa did not tape an ad.

Technically, it cost the state nothing to air the ads featuring the state officials and lawmakers. The ads went up in slots the state received as a bonus for the millions of dollars' worth of air time it bought for census commercials starring sports heroes and others.

No one disputes a accurate count's importance to California.

Nearly 840,000 Californians went untallied in the last census, costing the state one congressional seat and $2.22 billion over ten years in lost federal money.

But the public service announcements come as Democratic lawmakers and the Democratic attorney general investigate Republican Insurance Commissioner Chuck Quackenbush's use of a department fund for public service announcements featuring him.

Among other things, critics say Quackenbush let insurers avoid hundreds of millions of dollars in fines for improper handling of Northridge earthquake if they gave far lower amounts to the foundation that later produced the ads.

"This would be 'exhibit A' in the hypocrisy of the commissioner's political accusers," said Rob Stutzman, a spokesman for Quackenbush's political committee.

"The commissioner has been criticized for giving consumers information about insurance, which he is elected to do, whereas the Legislature is not a direct agent of the Census Bureau," he said.

One of the Democrats investigating Quackenbush, Assembly Insurance Committee Chairman Jack Scott of Altadena, is among those who appeared in a census commercial.

Two other investigators, Attorney General Bill Lockyer and Senate Insurance Committee Chairwoman Jackie Speier of Daly City, did not.

It was Democrats who pounced when the Complete Count Campaign alerted each California legislator about the importance of census outreach in December.

By mid-January, the Assembly speaker's Office of Majority Services a Democratic entity was writing and producing public service announcements, and got them to stations by March. They were taped in Mandarin, English, Spanish and Armenian, office director Lynn Montgomery said.

Montgomery could not recall any state or federal census outreach officials encouraging Democrats to tape the ads, and Complete Count Campaign officials say Assembly members approached them. The Assembly members asked for census information to use in their ads.

Assemblyman Thomas Calderon, D-Montebello, said the stakes were too high to let anyone in his district go uncounted, and that's why he decided to tape the ad.

"California has traditionally been seriously undercounted, and that translates in terms of real dollars we're not getting for services we're providing," he said.

"I did it to let my constituents know I view this as a very important thing," said Assemblyman Herb Wesson, D-Culver City, who said his wife forgot to send their form in. He didn't submit it until last week.

The Assembly Republican Caucus encouraged its members to tape such ads, but no one did, said James Fisfis, caucus spokesman.

The Senate Majority Caucus, also a Democratic apparatus, sent a memo to Democrats offering its services for radio spots.

"This was strictly just watching TV, hearing census PSAs myself and thining this is an opportunity (for census outreach) we can make available to our members," said Sonia Valverde, caucus director. "There was no conspiracy or anything."

Senate Republicans said they did not know why GOP members did not record such ads.

The ad that has stirred the most consternation among Capitol Republicans is one by Assemblyman Mike Machado, D-Stockton.

His public service announcement is currently airing in Stockton, which he represents, and in Sacramento, which he does not. But Machado is seeking a Senate seat that covers Sacramento.

Machado did not immediately respond to messages left at his office by The Associated Press seeking comment.

Bethany Knorr, Machado's legislative director, said the coverage area of the Stockton cable company carrying his ads naturally spills into Sacramento.

Machado's ad urges viewers to fill out census forms due more than three weeks ago.

By Scott Lindlaw