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Two San Diego Lawmakers Criticized Over Fundraisers

Two San Diego congressmen are hosting big fundraisers over their spring break recess -- one in Florida... and one on Mission Bay. Some critics say these events shut out voters in favor of wealthy donors who are buying access to power. Matt Laslo has the story from Washington.

Town hall meetings are all the rage for lawmakers. It's an opportunity to reach out to a varied group of constituents in a public setting. But southern California lawmakers also host events reserved only for those with fat bank accounts. On Thursday Vista Republican Darrell Issa kicked off a three day retreat in Florida. It's five thousand bucks to get in the door.

"We sit on about 410 acres, it's a beach front property that is on a barrier island," says Kathryn Songster.

Songster is Public Relations Manager at the Longboat Key Resort located fifteen minutes from Sarasota.

Besides its lush forty five hole golf course overlooking the Gulf Coast, Songster says the resort offers a nine thousand square foot spa. "We have 12 treatment rooms and we do about 50 different services in it," she says.

We contacted Issa's office several times but his staff said he was unavailable to comment. The Sunlight Foundation's Bill Allison says the secrecy around these fundraisers raises red flags.

"Completely legal, but the problem is, is that if you are a member of the general public you have no idea who is going to these fundraisers, who's talking to these members. We've heard anecdotally that lobbyists put together a lot of the Washington, their clients showing up. It's other lobbying firms showing up," Allison says.

It's not clear who is with Issa in Florida, but in the past Issa's top donors were the pharmaceutical and gambling industries. A room at the Longboat resort goes for around three hundred to over fifteen hundred dollars a night. That's far short of the five thousand dollar donation Issa is asking. Allison says guests at these fundraisers pay for access.

"And the reason you want to sit down with a member of Congress is to put forth their ideas and their viewpoints. And members are particularly solicitous of people who come to fundraisers," Allison says.

Last night in San Diego, Democrat Bob Filner held his own fundraiser at the Mission Bay Hilton, which has an award winning chef. The cost: five hundred to five thousand dollars. Filner's top donors are labor unions and the health care industry. We also called Filner's office throughout the week but were unable to talk to the congressman.

Mary Boyle works for the campaign reform group Common Cause. "Right now it is the purview of the special interests and wealthy people who can afford the $5,000 contribution. And Joe Q Public is left out in the cold and his voice is not being heard," Boyle says.

These events raise money both for the lawmaker's campaigns and their Political Action Committees - or PACS. Donors can give five thousand dollars to a PAC, but only twenty four hundred to a campaign. Both Filner and Issa send their PAC money to friends in Congress. Allison says that helps them score points with party leaders.

"You're helping out, building the party, contributing money like that, and it's noticed and it's something that helps you move up and it's definitely something that leadership will keep in mind," Allison says.

Lawmakers don't have to tell who shows up, just how much money is raised. Boyle says all the fundraising puts politicians in an exclusive class.

"I think it's fair to say that right now running for elected office is pretty much a purview of the rich and well connected. You either need to be rich yourself or know a lot of wealthy people. It's a huge wall," Boyle says.

The average cost of a House race is now around one million dollars. Hari Sevugan (Suh-voo-gin) is press secretary for the Democratic National Committee. He says candidates need lots of money to finance modern campaigns.

"Look, you know, there is a political reality that we are going to need resources to get our message out there and to compete in elections," Sevugan says.

A bi-partisan group of lawmakers is pushing a bill that could change fundraising. It offers public financing to politicians who limit themselves to individual donations of one hundred dollars. But most watchdog groups doubt it will pass, because all current lawmakers, like Issa and Filner, are adept at raising money.

From Capitol News Connection in Washington, I'm Matt Laslo FOR KPBS News.

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