SACRAMENTO -- Republican Mike Villines has a not-so-secret weapon as he seeks his party's nomination for state insurance commissioner in 2010. The Assembly member from Clovis essentially is buying support from groups that will plug his candidacy in mass mailings.
In the political trade, they are called "slate mailers," a perfectly legal and long-running tactic often used by low-profile candidates to gain attention. The mailings -- run by groups with names such as "California Taxpayer Alliance" and "Republican Voter Checklist" -- typically ask voters to support several candidates or issues.
Although the names sound impressive, the mailers in some cases are nothing more than the product of political consultants armed with voter lists.
Candidates in both political parties have used the mailings for decades. But good-government groups say many slate organizations just endorse the highest bidder.
"In a perfect world, this isn't the way we'd be running campaigns. Candidates wouldn't be using big bundles of money to buy endorsements," said Derek Cressman of California Common Cause, a nonprofit that pushes for political accountability.
Villines, who recently declared his candidacy, says he has shelled out $800,000 for 15 slates. He has openly plugged the purchases as he seeks to keep other Republicans out of the race. The mailings are run by organizations with impressive-sounding names such as "Family, Faith & Freedom Association" and "Official Non-Partisan Voter Guide."
"It's part of the process," Villines said. "You're either going to pay for your own mail or you can piggyback onto these slates, which is a much more effective way to use your money."
Political reformers have failed to stop slate mailers, or even make serious changes, because courts have found the practice to be protected free speech.
By law, candidates who pay to appear on slates must have an asterisk beside their name on the mailing, along with fine print noting the payment. In 1996, voters approved Proposition 208, which required the asterisks to be replaced by "$$$." But the requirement was challenged by pro-slate attorneys and overturned.
Slates are big business in California. Seventy-nine slate mail organizations registered with the state in the 2007-08 election cycle, with many reporting revenues of hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Supporters say slates allow candidates to spread their message without making more costly media buys.
"Slate mailers can be misleading, but so can any other form of communication," said Daniel Lowenstein, a law professor at the University of California at Los Angeles who has represented slate firms in court. "People who are concerned about the high cost of campaigns and the difficulty of communicating should recognize that slate mail is really a way of coping with those problems."
But slates also can breed voter confusion, as several cases illustrate.
In Los Angeles County, voters in 2006 elected Lynn Diane Olson for a judgeship after she paid $130,450 to appear on multiple slate mailings, including "Continuing the Republican Revolution" and "United Democratic Campaign Committee," according to filings.
Media reports later revealed that Olson, who ousted a longtime incumbent, was a co-owner of a bagel shop who hadn't practiced law in years and was rated as "not qualified" by the Los Angeles County Bar Association.
Another popular slate is the "COPS Voter Guide," which on its Web site bills itself as the "#1 Law Enforcement slate mailer in California." But the law enforcement group that the slate was named for pulled its backing more than a year ago, said Greg Powers, vice president of the California Organization of Police and Sheriffs, which provides legal representation for officers statewide.
The guide is now controlled by Kelley Moran, a political consultant and former adviser to the California Organization of Police and Sheriffs, Powers said.
Moran "always owned the voter guide, we just would endorse it for him," said Powers, who is a Tulare County probation officer.
Powers said his group split from the slate because officials did not have the time to research candidate views. As a result, the slate would sometimes list candidates who were not supported by local law enforcement groups, he said. Plus, the organization did not make money from the slates -- Moran did, Powers said.
"It has always been his baby," he said.
Moran still uses the phrase "COPS" on the guide, which took in almost $1.5 million last year, according to filings.
Some of the money came from a group whose beliefs appear to conflict with Moran's own views. Protectmarriage.com paid $50,000 for COPS slate mailings in its campaign for Prop. 8, the November ballot measure that banned gay marriage.
Moran is national director of a pro-gay rights group called Yes on Gay Marriage, which was launched in December. Moran confirmed his affiliation with the pro-gay marriage group but declined to answer other questions.
Villines has spent money to be on the COPS slate, as well as other mailings targeting Republican voters, according to a list provided by his campaign.
"We've totally cornered the market on slates," said Villines' political consultant, Steve Presson. "Anybody that's going to challenge Mike is going to have a tough fight on their hands."
The campaign's slate buys include "Republican Woman's Voice,'' produced by Landslide Communications in Irvine.
Like other slate firms, the company touts sophisticated mailing lists. Republican Woman's Voice is sent to women who "can be persuaded to vote for the 'business' position on initiative measures and statewide elections," according to the company's Web site.
Jim Lacy, who runs the company with his wife, Janice, said slates are not endorsements. They are "advertising vehicles," he said. But "in most cases we seek to have a candidate on our voter guides that reflects a mainstream conservative view."
For instance, he said, Landslide's "Save Proposition 13!" slate would never include a candidate who does not support the 1978 measure, which cut property taxes.
But the company's slates are not always consistent with Republican Party views. According to campaign filings, the Woman's Voice slate last year took $7,500 from the Yes on Prop. 2 campaign, a successful ballot initiative that banned small cages for egg-laying hens in the state.
The state GOP opposed the initiative, which drew scorn from many conservatives, especially in the farm-heavy Valley.