Founded by the Center for Investigative Reporting

The Rainmakers: California's top political donors, 2001-2011

Lavishing their largesse on legislators and political committees alike, the largest donors to California politics spent $1.25 billion from 2001 through 2011. The group — 50 special interests and 50 wealthy individuals — spans the Golden State's social order. They are corporate leaders and venture capitalists, real estate developers and Hollywood scions. They are energy and tobacco companies, labor unions and tribal governments. Collectively, they shelled out a third of all the money given to campaigns in the state during the 11-year period. This data includes only contributions to candidates and ballot measure committees, not independent expenditure groups.

Sacramento Bee

John G. Sperling, Phoenix, AZ

University of Phoenix


Win/loss percentage

4 percent

$69,200 to winners, $1,675,000 to losers

Born into a sharecropper family, John Sperling amassed his wealth by founding the for-profit University of Phoenix in 1976, which is now part of the publicly traded Apollo Group Inc. Sperling is credited with leading the development of for-profit colleges in the United States. Recently, Sperling’s company has battled numerous lawsuits, including one in 2003 claiming that the university violated the Higher Education Act by paying recruiters based on the number of students they enrolled. The next year, the U.S. Department of Education fined the Apollo Group nearly $10 million for similar violations. Prior to founding the University of Phoenix, Sperling was a tenured professor at San Jose State University. In the past decade, Sperling has financed initiatives to decriminalize marijuana and spent at least $1.5 million on legislation that would have decreased penalties for nonviolent drug offenders.

Total contributions: $1,799,800

22 donations: 12 to candidates, 6 to ballot measures and 4 to parties

List of contributions

Source: Contribution data from National Institute on Money in State Politics

Credits: Interactive by Michael Corey, Coulter Jones and Chase Davis. Reporting by Coulter Jones. Badge design by Thomas Guffey. Additional reporting by Stanford University students enrolled in a Communications Department investigative reporting class under the direction of California Watch Editorial Director Mark Katches. The project began in January 2011. Students participating were: Devin Banerjee, Daniel Bohm, Kathleen Chaykowski, Tom Corrigan, Cassandra Feliciano, Jamie Hansen, Amy Harris, Josh Hicks, Ellen Huet, Julia James, Paul Jones, Ryan Mac, Valentina Nesci, Dean Schaffer, Elizabeth Titus and Kareem Yasin. Bohm, Hansen, Huet, Harris and Titus continued to work on the project as California Watch interns under the direction of Associate Editor Denise Zapata.


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