Discussions about the influence of money on politics usually focus on the national scene. MSNBC viewers undoubtedly have heard Rachel or Lawrence denounce the Citizens United case for allegedly enabling corporations – unions are never mentioned, though the ruling applies equally to them – to pervert the political process in presidential and congressional elections.
When it gets down to the local level, what we usually hear are anecdotes: about the candidate who spent a ton of her own dough running for Council and still lost; about the developer who contributed $10,000 to the mayor and ended up with bupkis to show for it, or about the union that formed a political action committee (“PAC”), got all of its favored candidates elected, and was rewarded with a fat four-year contract and generous air-time perks for its members.
There may be some truth to each of these anecdotes. But we’ve never had a detailed analysis of the facts regarding campaign finance in Alameda.
Joe VanWinkle, an Alameda resident and business consultant interested in campaign finance reform, poured over the campaign disclosure statements on file with the Alameda City Clerk and prepared an analysis of campaign contributions and spending in the 2008, 2010, and 2012 mayoral and Council races. Mr. VanWinkle has authorized the Merry-Go-Round to share the results with our readers.
The analysis contains a number of interesting findings, among them:
- The top spender – Marie Gilmore, Rob Bonta, and Marilyn Ezzy Ashcraft, respectively — was elected in each of the 2008, 2010 and 2012 Council races; so was the top spender – Ms. Gilmore – in the 2010 mayoral race.
- Small contributions – i.e., less than $100 – decreased from 22% of the funds raised in the 2008 Council race to 10% of the funds raised in the 2012 Council race. For 2012, Jane Sullwold had the highest percentage of small contributions among Council candidates. She lost.
- Contributions from Alameda residents represented 22% of the funds raised by candidates in Council elections from 2008 through 2012. In 2010, 64% of Jean Sweeney’s contributions came from residents; in 2012, 43% of Ms. Sullwold’s contributions were from Alamedans. Both candidates lost.
- Contributions from non-residents represented 16% of the funds raised by candidates in Council elections from 2008 through 2012. In 2010, 55% of Mr. Bonta’s contributions came from non-residents; in 2012, 51% of Stewart Chen’s contributions came from outside Alameda. Both candidates won.
We’ve saved the facts that relate to the anecdotes for last. The analysis done by Mr. VanWinkle shows that the biggest spender of her own money on her campaigns was the Vice Mayor. To use campaign finance lingo, Ms. Ashcraft “self-financed” – i.e., paid the majority of expenses herself for – both of her last two races. In 2010, she spent $63,406, of which more than $45,000 came out of her own pocket; in 2012, through December 31, she spent $46,227, of which $27,000 was her own money. (Ms. Ashcraft first ran for Council in 2004, for which data was not included in the analysis).
Ms. Ashcraft’s experience also proves what Meg Whitman, among others, found out the hard way: Spending your own money on your campaign does not guarantee victory every time. Despite self-financing her 2010 campaign, Ms. Ashcraft came in fifth. But after again self-financing her campaign in 2012, when she was endorsed by the public safety unions for the first time, she topped the list.
The business contribution that is the subject of the scuttlebutt — $10,000 from Ron Cowan’s Harbor Bay Isle Associates to Bev Johnson – was made to support Ms. Johnson’s abortive bid for county supervisor; she later she rolled over the funds to her Council campaign. Contributions from businesses otherwise played only a small role in municipal elections, accounting for just 2% of total funds raised in the three Council races and 5% in the 2010 contest for mayor.
Finally, and not surprisingly, the leader of the PACs in Alameda is the Alameda Firefighters Association Political Action Committee. According to the analysis done by Mr. VanWinkle, the Firefighters PAC
- reported direct contributions and so-called “independent expenditures” – i.e., payments to a third party for items like brochures and mailers – of more than $150,000 to support or oppose mayoral, Council, school board and other candidates as well as ballot measures from 2008 through 2012;
- contributed to winning candidates after the official campaign reporting cycle (July to December) had ended. For example, all four successful municipal office-seekers in 2010 got donations from the Firefighters PAC after they had been sworn in. In addition, the Firefighters PAC gave $5,000 to Ms. Tam in February 2013, even though she had not been up for election in 2012 and is termed out on Council.
(Incidentally, the disclosure reports filed by the Firefighters PAC show something of a shift between direct contributions and independent expenditures between 2010 and 2012. In the 2010 election, the Firefighters PAC donated about $40,000 directly to candidates –including $13,300 before election day to Ms. Gilmore — and spent another roughly $23,000 on mailers. In the 2012 election, the Firefighters PAC donated only $1,500 directly to municipal candidates but spent $25,845 on mailers and door hangers — including $10,000 spent the week before the election on materials supporting Mr. Chen).
The analysis done by Mr. VanWinkle simply reports the facts. It does not make any recommendations. This Thursday, the League of Women Voters is sponsoring a public forum on money and politics in Alameda at the Community Center of Harbor Bay Isle. The speakers include Robert Stern, the co-author of the law establishing the state Fair Political Practices Commission. We hope that the distinguished panel will address some of the public policy issues regarding campaign finance as they relate to Alameda. For example:
- Does a system that allows wealthy candidates to spend as much as they want on their own campaigns discourage less wealthy, but nonetheless qualified, people from running for office?
- Does a system that allows special-interest PACs to spend as much as they want to elect their favored candidates create the perception that “the fix is in” when an issue involving those groups comes before a public body?
You don’t have to look hard to find critics who would answer both questions affirmatively. Liberal pundits are fond of pointing out how many public goods – say, library books – a self-financed candidate could have bought with the money she spent on her campaign. Likewise, law professors like Lawrence Lessig have written entire books arguing that the current system allowing unlimited spending by PACs and SuperPACs corrupts the democratic process.
On the other hand, there is nothing inherently unethical about unlimited campaign spending by either self-financed candidates or PACs. Joseph P. Kennedy opened his checkbook freely to fund his sons’ campaigns (leading to the famous JFK line, “I got a telegram from Dad. Jack, Don’t buy one more vote than you need. I’ll be damned if I’ll pay for a landslide”). And one can argue that a union has a fiduciary duty to maximize the wealth of its members — just as a corporation has a fiduciary duty to maximize the wealth of its shareholders — by “investing” in candidates who are willing to wear the union label if they’re elected.
Nor is there anything illegal about unlimited campaign spending by either self-financed candidates or PACs. To the contrary, the United States Supreme Court has held that both are protected by the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of speech. Any restrictions on spending by self-financed candidates or by PACs thus must be completely voluntary. (At least for now, it is still constitutionally permissible to limit donations directly to candidates).
Which raises the last question: If you can’t impose limits on spending by self-financed candidates or PACs, what kind of changes can you make to the existing system? Public financing of campaigns is the solution supported by many campaign finance reform advocates. But even in this area, the Supreme Court has cautioned that campaign finance laws must take care not to “burden” spending by privately financed candidates or PACs. For example, two years ago the Court struck down an Arizona law that provided matching funds to a publicly financed candidate whenever spending by her privately financed opponent, combined with independent expenditures supporting the opponent, exceeded the state money allotted to the publicly financed candidate.
We don’t pretend to know the answers to these campaign finance questions. Maybe the experts who will speak at the LWV forum can shed some light on them. But in the end, we are left with the uneasy feeling that any talk about campaign reform in this City may be just so much sound and fury anyway. Alameda voters may be perfectly satisfied with the system as it exists now. And we strongly suspect our incumbent elected officials like it very much indeed.
Campaign Finance Analysis: Alameda Election Financial Analysis 2008-2012 10-22-2013.jvw