Kim Alexander and the California Voter Foundation

By Max Vanzi
Published March, 1999, Copyright California Journal.

From humble beginnings, the California Voter Foundation has grown into an important political enterprise thanks to the drive and good-government instincts of its guiding spirit -- a 33-year-old woman who already has spent more than 15 years in and around California politics.

By the time she and her future board chairman met for the first time, Kim Alexander had single-handedly thrown some bold new light into the darker corners of state politics and electioneering. David Jefferson concluded that here was a skilled Capitol operator, no doubt a veteran reformer from way back.

Alexander had taken the California Voter Foundation, a neglected stepchild of the California Secretary of State's office, and made it home base for delivering rafts of information by computer to the voting public on candidates running for statewide office in the 1994 general elections. Working almost solo, no employer, no fat bankroll, she built from the ground up what would become California's first non-profit, non-partisan, handy-dandy Internet voter guide. It was a service that offered computer users from Eureka to San Diego the kind of basic political intelligence that seldom circulated outside Sacramento: candidate speeches, biographies, campaign promises, all unedited and unfiltered through intervening media. Since its maiden launch, the guide has expanded to new worlds of knowledge for the online voter, including the lowdown on political money. The mother's milk of politics, folks, at your fingertips.

Jefferson, a research engineer searching out new Internet applications for the Digital Equipment Corporation in Palo Alto, had been impressed with Alexander's 1994 online voter guide. Encouraged also by the savvy he was hearing as the two of them talked on the phone, he set up a meeting, and got a surprise.

"She was younger than I had thought," Jefferson said. "I had imagined her being, I don't know, maybe 40. She was under 30 at the time." Here, he observed, was this young but well-connected, obviously astute Capitol operator who could talk computers and politics with uncommon aplomb. "I was extremely impressed."

After working with her on a computer-based voter guide for San Francisco in 1995, Jefferson accepted Alexander's invitation to join the California Voter Foundation's board of directors in 1996. He became board chairman in 1997. He continues exploring new Internet possibilities for Compaq Computer, the successor to Digital. During an interview, Alexander recalled happily that first meeting with Jefferson, her bluer-than-blue eyes sparkling at the notion she had been perceived as young, committed and accomplished.

Though a ripe old 33 now, and her foundation an established fixture in the Capitol firmament, Kim Alexander sees in herself the same youthful, endless possibilities that she associates with the Internet itself. "The web is new, it's young. I feel free to be myself in this medium. There is the sense the kids are in charge. I like that," she said. During a chat at the California Voter Foundation offices, Alexander also allowed as how once, but only once, mistakes crept into her voter guide data on campaign contributions. She also confessed to a penchant for self-promotion, necessary, she said, as she goes about explaining to charitable foundations and corporations why they should contribute to her cause, which they have. Alexander's offices occupy the second floor of a handsome old former residence building near downtown. Inside, electric wires literally climb the walls connecting Alexander's 20-inch computer monitor to the terminals of two assistants, and thence to the hyper-linked Internet world beyond.

The scene fits what Alexander called the "the tremendous amount of energy we put out here every day." The young author Michele Mitchell, in her book "A New Kind of Party Animal," which celebrates New Age political activism, featured Alexander as a prime exemplar of her theme, summed up in the book's subtitle, "How the Young are Tearing Up the Political Landscape."

Alexander took her first rip at politics-as-usual with that first 1994 online voter guide. She came at it prepared, in both experience and motivation. A fifth-generation Californian from a family of achievers, Alexander rejoiced when her father won an upset race for a seat on the Culver City Council in 1973 and later became mayor. But then, "I asked my dad why he didn't run for higher office. He said he didn't want to go out and beg for money."

Dialing for dollars

So this, unfortunately, was the way it was in the real political world, thought 15-year-old Kim. Later, as a student at the University of California, Santa Barbara, "I continued thinking about this problem." As a volunteer in state Senator Gary Hart's 1988 campaign for a Santa Barbara area congressional seat, Alexander watched Democrat Hart, who was "dialing for dollars and hating it," barely lose to Republican incumbent Robert Lagomarsino. The two candidates ran up $3 million in campaign costs, a record that year for a congressional contest. Lagomarsino, in turn, would be ousted in the Republican primary four years later by the famously wealthy Michael Huffington, who would go on to wage a staggering $29 million campaign in a losing 1994 effort to kick Dianne Feinstein out of the U.S.Senate.

Money, money, everywhere, observed Kim Alexander. And how can a voter keep tabs on it all? The answer was, apart from following press coverage, only by trekking to a county registrar's office or the Secretary of State's office in Sacramento to examine heaps of paper records.

"I had come to see money in politics as something like an air bubble underneath the carpet; if you step on it in one place, it just pops up somewhere else," Alexander said. The buying of influence, she observed, "just didn't go away."

By 1992, Alexander had interned for Common Cause in Washington, D.C , had come to Sacramento where she was hired by California Common Cause in a paid position and in between had served in the Capitol as a Senate Fellow for Democrat Herschel Rosenthal of Los Angeles, her hometown state senator. She was learning how Sacramento worked, while still thinking about reforms.

"I began to take a big interest in voter education while I was at Common Cause," she said. It seemed that "we could reduce the need for money in politics [through] more non-partisan voter education, by encouraging voters to be more proactive." Politics was becoming "more shallow and meaningless to many voters" who were exposed to little more than slick campaign ads as a guide to voting.

Press coverage corrected some of the distortion, but not enough. "I started thinking about the Internet in 1992," she recalled. "I thought, here's the way to get [better] information out to people. It's affordable, it's effective, you don't have to print a 300-page guide and mail it to people, and who wants to read a telephone book anyway?"

A year later she helped promote then-Assemblywoman Debra Bowen's (D-Venice) successful legislation to require all the Legislature's voting and legislative records to go online, opening up the law-making process to the public, arguably, as never before.

The possibilities for Alexander to do likewise with political campaigns arose in 1994 when Tony Miller, then acting secretary of state, offered Alexander the remnants of a non-profit entity that the agency had created, then abandoned. It was called the California Voter Foundation. "Aha, here is something I can work with," Alexander recalled thinking, to realize her desire of educating voters "in a meaningful way." Only if the state electorate could become better informed, Alexander had maintained all along, would the importance, and the deceptive nature, of political money diminish. Here was a starting point.

With $13,000 in the foundation's bank account and left with little else but a title, Alexander "refounded" the California Voter Foundation, and began assembling her first Internet voter guide.

A 'pretty groovy' time

The work consisted of Alexander running around to campaign offices collecting computer diskettes on which the candidates were storing speeches, press releases, position papers, endorsement lists and biographies. She confined the exercise to candidates running for statewide office in the November general election, as well as the state's 1994 candidates for U.S. Senate, Feinstein and Huffington. Everyone cooperated, Alexander recalled, except Democrat Kathleen Connell, who won the race for state controller. For further context, the voter guide included job descriptions of the offices being sought along with articles from the California Journal analyzing races.

Alexander launched her voter guide on the Internet with the help of Pacific Bell, which supplied the equipment leading from Alexander's borrowed personal computer. (At every step, she said she encourages partnerships that help her to run her operations). She held press conferences and wrote releases to advertise her creation. To stir up interest, she arranged an online demonstration for computer illiterate reporters. She worked out of her apartment, alone mostly, stretching the foundation's $13,000 as far it would go in paying her a small salary and helping with the rent. The money ran out before the project was complete "and I actually collected unemployment for a couple of months."

The experience, she said, was "pretty groovy. I was 28 and had no debts, no college loans and my car was paid for. In a lot of ways being poor was the most liberating thing that ever happened to me, because I realized I didn't need as much as I thought."

The completed voter guide was "nothing fancy, no bells and whistles." But she got results: 36,000 "page visits" to various components of the voter guide by people on computers tapping into the service.

Meanwhile, "I started writing letters like crazy to mostly California corporations," requesting money to keep the foundation going, pointing out that their grants are a tax deduction, "a good deal for them."

Out of 36 corporations that were asked for support, "12 of them said yes," Alexander said, netting her $12,000 and no further need for unemployment benefits. The Oracle, Intel and Apple computer companies sent checks, as did Pacific Gas and Electric, Pacific Telesis and the California Teachers Association. Launched and firmly in orbit following the 1994 election, the California Voter Foundation grew as did the Internet and its service providers. So far, Alexander has produced Internet guides for California voters in five elections, with all of the data from each campaign still available at the foundation's web site,

Follow the money

Click on that address today and you will be welcomed to Alexander's world of political intelligence on a screen decorated with a sunburst blue and gold logo. From the welcome page, the links go on and on, covering more than 300 web pages from the 1998 general election alone.

For voters in 1996 and more so in 1998, guides were prepared for primary and general elections containing information on candidates up and down the California ballot. Background on state ballot measures was there to view as well. Alexander broke new ground in 1996, providing on the Internet for the first time campaign finance reports on late contributions. Alexander e-mailed her reports to reporters and others after trooping to the Secretary of State's office with her assistants to make entries on a laptop computer from the agency's paper records.

While the 1996 voter guide took a giant step toward "following the money," it was then that Alexander's service made an error, attributing to Republicans primary election campaign contributions going to Democrats. "We were using some mixed-up data from the Secretary of State," Alexander said. While reporters privately faulted her for not acknowledging the miscue, Alexander said there was an admission posted on her web site. She said the error warranted re-examination of some procedures but that, after all, "It's hard; we're at the forefront of a digital revolution."

The good news was that by 1998, a vast amount of political money was getting reported online, either from Alexander's service or from the secretary of state, thanks mainly to a state law passed in 1997. The law mandates, in stages, the electronic filing and Internet disclosure of all state campaign and lobbying finance transactions. Alexander had been instrumental in promoting passage of the electronic-filing bill -- in fact, had pushed too hard in earlier versions that had failed passage, according to a source familiar with the effort.

"Originally, Kim was more aggressive than members of the Legislature were ready for. She had to learn to take it a little slower, and she learned to do that in the end," said the source, who asked to remain unidentified.

Secretary of State Bill Jones praised Alexander without qualification. "She's to be complimented," he said, for her help in the three-year effort to require electronic filing of campaign reports, which Jones had made a priority goal. Additionally, he said, "there is no question the California Voter Foundation provides a valued service."

Alexander said she takes care not to compete with the Secretary of State's Office. In 1998, the state agency posted contribution reports from 16 candidates who volunteered to file electronically. The office also placed online late-contribution reports from all state campaigns. On Alexander's service, web readers could view two top-10 lists of contributions to statewide candidates and ballot measure races, as well as all itemized contributions from the regular (as opposed to late) campaign finance reports.

Shining the light

Besides voter guides, other components of the California Voter Foundation online include a guide to the California Legislature, with links to its databases, and a feature called Digital Sunlight to promote further online disclosure of campaign finances. There were 450,000 page views as of mid-December, 1998. From the low-budget operation she began with, Alexander said she has raised $600,000 for the project to date and receives an annual salary, set by her board, "in the mid-50s."

She now is soliciting, online, "charter memberships" in the foundation, beginning at $35 a year for individuals. Like public broadcasting, she said, her funding must come from as broad a base as possible for the enterprise to grow as a doggedly independent "giant information co-op" for California voters.

Alexander speaks confidently of a secure future for her enterprise and others like it, in which "today's children growing up will expect political information on the net." The Internet, she said, is the right tool to forge the more informed electorate that the country needs, and needs soon.

"I hate to sound overly dramatic," Alexander said, "but given the fact we impeached a president a few days ago, we don't have all the time in the world to make politics better."

Max Vanzi worked for nine years in the Sacramento bureau of The Los Angeles Times and now writes freelance. Comments regarding this article may be e-mailed c/o

This story reprinted with permission from the California Journal.

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