POLITICS CAN be a good business. Just look at the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association.
Jarvis has been dead for a quarter century. But the organization that bears his names occupies a profitable niche, one that includes opposing taxes, promoting initiatives and endorsing politicians.
Jarvis was a tea partier long before the anti-government and anti-tax movement took on its current name. Now, his mad-as-hell message is part of the Republican establishment, almost always aligned with Chamber of Commerce and real estate interests, and often with tobacco, oil, gambling and other big businesses.
The rough edges are gone, but the Jarvis name is as powerful now as it was in 1978 when he championed the property tax-slashing Proposition 13, and Time magazine splashed his craggy visage on its cover.
Today, Jon Coupal is responsible for spreading the Jarvis message. A 54-year-old attorney who is as smooth as Jarvis was bombastic, Coupal has been a denizen of the political scene for more than two decades. After working for the conservative Pacific Legal Foundation he joined the Jarvis organization in 1991, ascending to its presidency in 1999, a post that paid $255,000 last year.
Coupal is making the rounds of conservative talk shows touting the endorsement of billionaire Republican Meg Whitman's candidacy for governor over Steve Poizner, and slapping at Democrat Jerry Brown.
If it ever was, the organization long ago ceased being a curmudgeonly old man's domain. Now, it is a sophisticated series of nonprofit corporations and political action committees, built around opposition to tax increases or expansion of government, though it does veer into other lucrative areas when the price seems right.
Through e-mail and snail mail, Coupal and his staff, working from a tidy downtown office, regularly tap roughly 200,000 followers, mobilizing them to sign petitions, vote and, of course, donate. The followers are aged, averaging 60-plus years old, but are reliable voters and provide sufficient political muscle to ensure the operation is a force inside the Capitol.
Jarvis' lobbyist regularly testifies on budget and taxation issues, always on the side of big business and against taxes. Hardly an outsider, the organization spent $2.27 million on lobbying in 2009. That ranks it eighth highest, above heavyweights such as PG&E and Chevron, entities with which it sides, or the California Labor Federation, with which it invariably disagrees.
All that Republican orthodoxy may place the organization in the minority in this blue state. But its anti-tax stand is potent and helps explain California's perennial budget impasses. Like the Club for Growth, which elicits anti-tax pledges from congressional candidates, the Jarvis organization obtains pledges from legislative candidates who vow to oppose any measure deemed to undermine Proposition 13.
The pledge is not to be trifled with, as Assemblyman Anthony Adams, a San Bernardino County Republican, learned when he broke from the pack and voted for a tax increase last year.
Coupal minced no words when he announced his support of the effort to oust Adams: "Recalling a legislator who stabbed us in the back is a good way to remind other legislators that there are certain acts which are unforgivable and punishable by the political death penalty known as recall."
Adams survived. But the tax vote derailed his career in Republican politics. He will quit the Legislature when this session ends. The message was clear; there cannot be the "slightest deviation from blinding purity," Adams told me.
The meaning of purity depends on who does the defining. Coupal promotes initiatives to limit campaign spending by labor and is a critic of public employee unions and their pensions, even as the organization has accepted $42,000 from the California Teachers Association and $10,000 from the California Correctional Peace Officers Association. Both donations were earmarked for Jarvis-backed initiative fights.
Millions pass through the Jarvis organization each year. The Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, the main umbrella organization, disclosed that it raised $12 million in 2008.
That was the year Coupal joined with mobile home park owners to push an initiative to restrict government's ability to use eminent domain to take over property.
To my mind, the initiative placed the organization in an odd position. Old man Jarvis' main goal was to roll back ever-rising property taxes to help longtime homeowners hang onto their houses.
One goal of the eminent domain initiative was to overturn local rent control ordinances governing mobile home parks. That would have allowed mobile home park owners to raise rents, which would have forced residents from their homes. Voters rejected the measure.
The organization has taken other stands that were more remunerative than popular. In 2004, Coupal appeared on television commercials attesting to the wisdom of an initiative sponsored by the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, which owns two casinos in downtown Palm Springs and in the outskirts.
The initiative, Proposition 70, sought to give tribes unlimited authority to expand their casinos on their reservations so long as they paid the state part of their earnings.
"With Proposition 70," Coupal said on the commercials, "casinos help share the burden for schools, health care and public safety."
Voters rejected the measure, but it was not a total loss. Agua Caliente donated $1.825 million to one of Jarvis' political committees.
Politics is not recession-proof. But the 2010 outlook is promising for the Howard Jarvis organization.
It is pushing to place on the November ballot an initiative sponsored by the Chamber of Commerce that would make it harder for lawmakers to impose fees, and likely one backed by oil companies and others to overturn Assembly Bill 32, the landmark 2006 state law requiring that businesses cut greenhouse gases.
The power of Jarvis' name won't wane any time soon. The Public Policy Institute of California last polled on Proposition 13 in September, finding that its appeal crosses party lines and voters support it by a 2-to-1 ratio.
No politician understands that better than Jerry Brown, the Democratic candidate for governor. Brown initially opposed Proposition 13 but so wrapped himself up in its implementation that Jarvis endorsed his re-election in 1978.
As he announced his 2010 candidacy for the office he held back in 1978, Brown channeled his old "frenemy," promising not to raise taxes unless voters give specific approval. That pledge was not enough for a Jarvis endorsement.
Whitman secured that coveted stamp of approval. Coupal said there is no agreement that Whitman will donate to his group. But she is a billionaire, and Coupal is in the business of promoting initiatives and causes. The question lingers: Will the Jarvis name hew to its populist past or be used to tout the causes of the highest bidder?
Dan Morain is a syndicated columnist and writes for the Sacramento Bee.