Being on list of tobacco money recipients pains some Dems

It’s an article of faith for most Democrats to avoid being associated with Big Tobacco.

Of the 77 Democrats in the Legislature, 54 (75 percent) have never received a single dime from tobacco companies or interests associated with them.

So, it was more than mere annoyance that Sen. Leland Yee, D-San Francisco/San Mateo, found his name on a list of Democrats who received tobacco money.

Yee is running for mayor in San Francisco, and the last thing he needs is to be labeled as the Big Tobacco candidate.

A study by the American Lung Association showed Yee as taking $4,300 from tobacco interests. But Yee’s chief of staff, Adam Keigwin, insists that the report is wrong.

Philip Morris, the tobacco giant, sent Yee $3,300 in 2005-06 when he was running for the Senate. But Yee sent the money back, Keigwin said.

“He has a policy of not accepting tobacco contributions,” Keigwin said. “He never took any donation. They reported it as a contribution, but check our contribution filing and you’ll see he never accepted it.”

Still, there was the $1,000 he received from the California Distributors Association in the 2005-2006 election cycle.

“When he took that, he wasn’t thinking of it as a tobacco contribution,” Keigwin said. “I’m not denying they distribute tobacco. But his policy is to not take tobacco money. That means tobacco companies and manufacturers.

“If you try to include anybody with any connection with tobacco, that’s a bit extreme,” Keigwin said.

Assemblyman Jim Beall, D-San Jose, said that when he took $1,000 from the California Distributors Association in 2007-2008, he had no idea it has a strong affiliation with tobacco.

“I hate to say it, but I’m not as sharp on the PACs as others,” Beall said from his San Jose district office. “It’s not my priiority.”

Beall was called out on the contribution by a voter in his district, Linda York, who was outraged he’d taken the money.

In an email to me, she wrote, “Had I known that Beall was ‘in bed’ with these types of lobbyists, and as a registered Democrat, I would have voted another way. My mother died of smoking related complications, and I watched as she died a slow death. With all of the negative ads for smoking, along with better education, most people now know its dangers, including, I’m sure, Assemblyman Beall.”

York contacted his office, which said it was news to them that he’d received a tobacco contribution. They assured her that he’s opposed to tobacco influence, and pointed out that Beall authored legislation, AB 2344, last year that would have changed the one-time $100 licensing fee for retailers who sell tobacco products to an annual $185 fee. The money would have gone for enforcement, as well as to breast cancer research.

The bill was vetoed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenneger.

Beall was also supportive of tobacco cessation programs and initiatives for local fees as a Santa Clara County supervisor.

But York said if indeed he wasn’t in bed with tobacco companies, he should return the money.

I later asked Beall if he would return the money, and he said he wouldn’t.

“I’ve already spent it,” he said. “I did not solicit this contribution. Why would I give it back to them and they will just give it to other elected officials who support them? I’m not interested in plumping up their fund so they can use it for their own cause.”

Beall said that taking the money was “inadvertant. To me it was unsolicited.” And, he said, “it certainly didn’t influence me. They opposed my bill.”

Paul Knepprath, the vice president for Advocacy and Health Initiative of the American Lung Association in California, said it isn’t credible for legislators to say they didn’t know the California Distributors Association is a tobacco affiliate.

“It would be pretty hard to not know CDA represents tobacco distributors and wholesalers,” Knepprath said. “There’s plenty of smart people in the Capitol, staffers and others, who know who’s doing business with tobacco companies and who represents tobacco distributors.”

As for the $3,300 that Philip Morris sent to Yee but was sent back, Knepprath said they will check into it. If they find that he did return it, they will make the correction.

“We want to be fair and accurate,” he said. “If it’s a legitimate issue, we will absolutely address it.”

Steven Harmon