Politics & Government

Why California congressman skipped UC Merced's big day

WASHINGTON — Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Merced, missed the University of California at Merced's momentous 2009 graduation two weeks ago in part because he was busy raising money.

While an estimated 12,000 students, parents and area residents were welcoming first lady Michelle Obama's historic graduation address on May 16, Cardoza cited "personal and professional" reasons at the time for remaining on the East Coast.

On Friday, responding to a reporter's questions, Cardoza acknowledged that he had been at Pimlico Race Course in Maryland hosting a previously scheduled $5,000-a-head fundraiser. The money raised during the famed Preakness Stakes event went toward Cardoza's Moderate Victory Fund, a political action committee that aids other candidates.

"That event had been scheduled for several months," Cardoza said Friday. "It was a long-standing event, which raised money for moderate Democrats."

The UC Merced graduation was the first for students who attended the new university for all four years. The May 16 graduation date was set at the start of the school year late last summer, university spokeswoman Patti Waid Istas said, although Michelle Obama's participation was only confirmed in late March.

Often billed as the first new research university of the 21st century, UC Merced is located within Cardoza's congressional district. He and other lawmakers have made a point in the past of seeking state and federal support, including earmarked funding, as have other lawmakers, and the House passed earlier this year a symbolic resolution praising the university.

Nonetheless, the only House member to attend the May 16 graduation was Rep. Jerry McNerney, D-Pleasanton, whose congressional district dips into San Joaquin County. Neither of California's two senators attended, although the state's lieutenant governor, attorney general and Assembly speaker did.

"Barbara Boxer was not there," Cardoza said. "Dianne Feinstein was not there."

Cardoza noted that he helped host a celebratory dinner to honor the UC Merced seniors a week before the formal graduation, adding that "it was unfortunate" that the timing did not work out for him to attend the graduation.

"I have hundreds of requests in a year," Cardoza said, noting that he must also make time for his family. "I like to go to graduations, but I don't make every one."

Cardoza ran unopposed for re-election last year, and through March he reported having about $264,000 in surplus campaign cash. The money raised at Pimlico, though, will go into a separate fund.

The Moderate Victory Fund is a leadership political action committee, which enables Cardoza to raise money separately from his own campaign account and then distribute it to other like-minded candidates. Traditionally, politicians use leadership PACs to build alliances and gain influence.

Cardoza said he didn't know how much money his Pimlico event raised.

Last year, the Moderate Victory Fund raised about $102,000 from entities such as Wal-Mart, Comcast and the National Association of Realtors. In turn, the PAC contributes money to Cardoza's Capitol Hill allies as well as some challengers who align themselves with generally centrist views.

"I try to get moderate Democrats elected to office," Cardoza said, "and this is one of the ways to do that."