Once upon a time, there were a couple of basic rules for Alameda Council elections:
- No first-time candidate ever will be able to spend her way onto Council.
- The incumbent always wins.
But then in 2010, the Alameda firefighters’ union, which previously had played only a minor role in local campaigns, decided to flex its financial muscles to elect Council members who would get rid of the union’s nemesis, Interim City Manager Ann Marie Gallant.
The IAFF Local 689 slate – Marie Gilmore for Mayor and Rob Bonta and Lena Tam for Council – swept into office, and the electoral rules have been changing ever since. If the union-backed duo of incumbent Councilwoman Marilyn Ezzy Ashcraft and Teamster lawyer and Mills College visiting scholar Malia Vella wins Council seats on Tuesday, the old rule book finally will have to be thrown out. Going forward, the new rules will be:
- The first-time candidate upon whom the unions bestow the biggest bucks
will get a seat on the dais.
- Incumbency no longer guarantees re-election.
But that isn’t all. A victory for Ms. Ashcraft and Ms. Vella may usher in an era in which not just union money, but money from unions and others outside Alameda, determines the outcome in local races.
To research this topic, the Merry-Go-Round reviewed the campaign disclosure statements filed by Mayoral and Council candidates in every election since 2000 and tabulated the contributions, monetary and non-monetary, they had received from unions (or their PACs). We also examined the “independent expenditures” supporting or opposing a candidate made by the IAFF Local 689 and UFCW Local 5 PACs, and, for 2016, by “Alamedans United.”
We decided to include the latter group in the analysis because “Alamedans United” is sponsored by the firefighters’ and grocery workers’ unions and was capitalized by contributions from out-of-town union PACS. (Side note: The Alameda firefighters’ PAC reported it had made its first gift – the odd sum of $2,103.32 – to “Alamedans United” this week.)
We’ll delve into the nitty-gritty in a moment. But, first, take a look at a chart that depicts the sea change that has occurred since 2000:
As the chart shows, the 2010 election was when things began to change.
In the five elections prior to 2010, an incumbent running for re-election to Council always won: Al DeWitt and Barbara Kerr in 2000, Tony Daysog in 2002, Ms. Gilmore in 2004, Frank Matarrese in 2006, and Doug deHaan and Ms. Gilmore in 2008.
Moreover, during those five elections, a political newcomer had no luck trying to spend her way onto Council. 2004 is the classic example. As many people remember, first-time candidate Pat Bail shelled out $105,000 of her own money on her Council race – and finished third. Fewer people may recall that there was another first-time candidate that year who spent her own money on her campaign – and lost: Ms. Ashcraft. (The 2004 race depleted the Ashcraft family fortune by only $10,775. When Ms. Ashcraft ran for Council again six years later, she spent $46,500 of her own funds – and came in fifth.)
In any event, Ms. Bail and Ms. Ashcraft couldn’t blame the unions for their defeat. The total contributed by organized labor to all Council candidates in 2004 was only $7,300.
This wasn’t unusual. In the five elections prior to 2010, total union contributions in Mayoral and Council races exceeded $10,000 only once – in 2006, a Mayoral election year, when they hit $16,250.
Based on the campaign disclosure statements, one might conclude that the candidate favored by organized labor was Mr. Mattarese, who got $8,050 from seven different union PACs. But none of those unions was the Alameda firefighters’ union, which had a different candidate – Ms. Gilmore – in mind.
The IAFF Local 689 PAC ended up giving Ms. Gilmore $13,300 in cash. It also spent $9,385.83 on a mailer attacking her principal opponent, Mr. deHaan. In addition, the union prepared and sent out a “slate” mailer promoting Ms. Gilmore for Mayor and Mr. Bonta and Ms. Tam for Council that cost $17,707.24. And, for good measure, the firefighters also favored Mr. Bonta and Ms. Tam with $2,500 in cash apiece.
All told, the IAFF Local 689 PAC, which never had spent more than $9,000 in any of the prior five elections and never had paid for a slate mailer, doled out $45,393.07 to get its candidates elected in 2010. The contributions by other labor organizations brought total union spending to a then-record $58,393.07.
Did the unions get what they’d paid for? You’d have to ask Jeff DelBono or Mike Henneberry. We do know that the Council over which Ms. Gilmore presided not only cashiered Ms. Gallant as its first official act but subsequently approved new public safety union contracts guaranteeing minimum annual raises regardless of the City’s financial condition.
2012 was the year in which the first of the new electoral rules – the first-time candidate upon whom organized labor bestows the biggest bucks will get a seat on the dais – emerged.
No incumbent was running for re-election to Council, and, for a long while, the firefighters’ union treated the three candidates it endorsed – Ms. Ashcraft, and first-timers Jeff Cambra and Stewart Chen, D.C. – equally. It gave each of them a token $500 cash contribution. And all three shared in the benefits of the slate mailer for which the union paid $15,845.17.
But then, with only a week to go before the election, the IAFF Local 689 PAC spent $10,000 on door-hangers devoted exclusively to touting Dr. Chen (and not Ms. Ashcraft or Mr. Cambra). That put him at the head of the pack (or should we say “PAC”?) in terms of financial support from organized labor, and, lo and behold, he squeaked into the third available slot on Council.
Dr. Chen thus personifies the first of the new electoral rules. Unfortunately for him, he exemplifies the second rule, too.
Since he was elected to fill the Council seat vacated by Mr. Bonta, Dr. Chen had to run for re-election in 2014. As an incumbent who had faithfully advanced the labor agenda for two years, he racked up $3,500 in cash contributions from unions other than the Alameda firefighters. In addition, an out-of-town PAC called the “Golden State Leadership Fund” decided – for reasons that still are unclear to us – that it wanted Dr. Chen to stay on Council – and that it didn’t want Mr. Mattarrese to take his seat. The group spent $21,611.82 on mailers boosting Dr. Chen and another $14,000 on mailers attacking Mr. Matarrese.
But this time around Dr. Chen didn’t turn out to be the firefighters’ union’s favorite. Sure, the IAFF Local 689 PAC paid for the food and drink at his fundraiser, and, sure, it included him on the slate mailer that cost $14,042.40 and paid for phone banking for him. But when the game was on the line, the union gave the ball to . . . Bonta aide-de-camp and first-time candidate Jim Oddie.
As it had in 2012, with only days remaining before the election, the IAFF Local 689 PAC paid for a mailer touting a single candidate. (This time it cost $8,872.64.) But the anointed one was Mr. Oddie, not Dr. Chen.
And the firefighters were not alone in their fondness for Mr. Oddie. Indeed, 17 labor organizations other than the IAFF Local 689 PAC gave him a total of $12,650, about four times as much as other unions gave Dr. Chen. So Mr. Oddie became the candidate who got the most labor money in 2014 – and, sure enough, he won one of the two open Council seats. And when Mr. Matarrese won the other, Dr. Chen became the first example of the new rule that incumbency no longer guarantees success.
After Mr. Bonta’s departure for the State Assembly, it was up to Dr. Chen, and then to Mr. Oddie, to look out for organized labor’s interests. Again, without giving either a grade, we’ll point out that, in the last four years, Council approved new public safety union contracts extending the guaranteed minimum annual raises through 2021 and authorized construction of a gargantuan Emergency Operations Center and fire station that will end up costing the City more than $14 million. What’s more, in a move that Mr. Oddie had been pushing since he was elected, Council just recently adopted an ordinance requiring labor-friendly “Project Stabilization Agreements” for public-works projects.
The precedents set in 2012 and 2014 have continued into 2016.
Like Mr. Oddie, Ms. Vella is relying on a universe of union contributors extending beyond the Alameda firefighters’ union. Indeed, of the $31,985.67 in labor money she reported receiving through October 24, only $285.67 – the cost of food and drink at her kickoff fundraiser – came from the IAFF Local 689 PAC. National, state, and local Teamsters PACs have given Local 856’s lawyer $12,000; 15 other labor organizations ponied up the rest.
And like Dr. Chen, Ms. Vella is benefiting from “independent expenditures” by an out-of-town PAC that not only praises her but pillories one of her chief opponents. We refer, of course, to “Alamedans United.” The campaign disclosure statements show that, through November 1, the PAC had spent $18,706.32 on the effort to elect Ms. Vella (and another $12,888.19 on behalf of Ms. Ashcraft). In addition, the two mailers trashing Councilman Daysog for which Alamedans United takes responsibility – see sidebar – cost the group $16,850.51.
If the rules of the game really have changed, Tuesday should bring grins to the faces of Capt. DelBono and his union colleagues who invented Ms. Vella’s candidacy; to the unions who filled her war chest with cash, and to the out-of-town unions (and developers) who banded together to promote Ms. Vella, Ms. Ashcraft, and other pro-labor candidates. We suppose Ms. Vella herself will be happy, too.
But if this is the result, we’ll skip the revelry at 2027 Clement Avenue and stop by St. Barnabas to say a novena for Tony Daysog. We admit that we sometimes find the Councilman’s public performance irritating – but no one deserves to be smeared out of office like the unions and their allies in the blogosphere are trying to do to Mr. Daysog. And while we’re kneeling, we might even offer a word of thanks for Jennifer Roloff, the only candidate who believed that posting a detailed statement of her positions on the issues would provide useful information for voters – and ended up finding out that it only provided fodder for the attack dogs. We know only too well how that goes.
Of course, maybe we’re being too cynical. Donald Trump may yet announce it was all a big publicity stunt and withdraw from the race. Alameda voters may rebel at being manipulated by political forces that see fit to disguise their identity – if they disclose it at all – to camouflage their self-interest. We’ll see.
Campaign disclosure statements for the local candidates,”Alamedans United,” and the IAFF PAC are available on the City website: http://docs.ci.alameda.ca.us/WebLink8/Browse.aspx?startid=310100&row=1&dbid=0.
Campaign disclosure statements for the UFCW Local 5 PAC are available on the Secretary of State’s website: http://cal-access.sos.ca.gov/default.aspx.