Proposition 14 Update: Will Cash and Connections Overwhelm Skepticism from the Press?

Biopolitical Times

As the November 3 election approaches, Californians are focusing on the ballot propositions. The money spent on them this year is not only record-breaking, it’s almost unbelievable: more than $700 million so far, for and against a dozen measures. 

In that context, spending by the campaign for Proposition 14, to fund the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine again, seems almost modest. As of October 17, according to the informative Ballotpedia page, proponents have raised over $16 million (including in-kind contributions) and spent well over $18 million. Both numbers are likely to increase when the final reports are in, but will probably remain less than the $35 million spent on the original Proposition 71 in 2004. Real estate developer Robert N. Klein II, who wrote both Prop. 71 and Prop. 14, is a master of leveraging finance — his contributions got this season’s campaign going, but most of them have been in-kind and through his corporation.

Opponents have, according to the Secretary of State, raised $250, which Ballotpedia sensibly rounds down to $0. There just isn’t an organized campaign against Prop. 14.

However, numerous editorial boards of newspapers around the state have recommended voting NO. They include:

Supporters of the initiative cite newspaper recommendations that take their view, including The Sacramento Bee (whose editorial is described by David Jensen, publisher of the widely respected California Stem Cell Report, as “balderdash”) and its Fresno and Modesto cousins; The San Luis Obispo Tribune; The Santa Clarita Valley Signal; and The Chico News & Review. But they pad their list with campus papers and local-interest and/or web-only publications, and none are linked, so it’s hard to find the reasoning behind the endorsements. Overall, the NO publications seem far more impressive.

The proponents of Prop. 14 have also signed up patient-advocacy groups (for them, what’s to lose?) and research scientists (affiliations “are for identification purposes only,” which provokes a cynical chuckle; many of them have a financial interest in its passage). Just as significantly, the YES campaign got the Democratic Party endorsement, and with it that of many local party organizations as well as Governor Newsom, Senator Feinstein, Representative Waters and more. Robert Klein clearly worked his decades of contacts in the California government. 

Klein has also, the California Stem Cell Report has noted, peddled “a variety of claims that stretch the facts or that the campaign is unwilling to support publicly,” about the cost of the proposal, the number of clinical trials in progress, and the likelihood of cures. As Stanford Professor Hank Greely told The Mercury News, “Politics has a corrupting influence on everything — it pushes toward exaggeration.”

The unorganized NO non-campaign of course has no competing list of endorsers, but there are a few notable ones. The first president of CIRM, Zach Hall, who retired to Wyoming, is on record as opposing Prop. 14; he believes that Prop. 71 “served an important and useful purpose” but that Prop. 14 “is searching for a rationale to continue CIRM.” CIRM board member and long-time AIDS activist Jeff Sheehy has been a vocal opponent of the new proposition. The Center for Genetics and Society, without taking a formal position, remains skeptical. 

There has been no public polling on Prop. 14. It’s not as prominent in the political debates as Prop. 71 was in 2004, partly because of other controversial and very well-funded propositions, partly because embryonic stem cells have, appropriately, receded in importance, and partly no doubt because it’s old news. 

Stem cell researcher and entrepreneur Jeanne Loring strongly sympathizes with concerns about conflicts of interest. “I saw a lot of stuff going on that troubled me,” she told STAT. “It was a ‘bro’ thing. It was too cozy.”

According to The Scientist, she has “mixed feelings” toward the measure: If it passes, “I’ll be happy. If it doesn’t, I’ll be fine.” Her own experience demonstrates that funds for stem cell research are plentiful; as STAT puts it, “any promising treatments are likely to get investor or NIH funding to continue.” Loring explains:

“It took me two months to get 6.5 million dollars to start my company. Then I got $70 million more this January. CIRM was designed to jump-start companies and then have the private sector take over. That was always the plan.”

Perhaps the public, in this time of budgetary distress, will see things that way and vote NO on Prop. 14.