At the Merry-Go-Round, we’ve always had a soft spot for grassroots organizations formed by ordinary citizens to use the electoral process to achieve shared policy objectives, especially when the ruling class won’t listen to them.
This is why we admire outfits like Indivisible, which has evolved from an outlet for anti-Trump invective into a network of local chapters devoted to endorsing, and campaigning for, candidates for federal and state office. And it’s why, closer to home, we applauded Protect Our Alameda Parks, formed in 2012 to promote a charter amendment prohibiting the sale of City parks to developers, and Friends of Crown Beach, formed in 2014 to sponsor an initiative re-zoning surplus federal land as open space.
Now another citizen-driven organization is about to appear on the local scene.
Earlier this year, the Alameda Citizens Task Force set up an “exploratory committee” to consider creating a political action committee to support candidates for mayor and council this November. ACT never has issued any formal endorsements in local races. But certain of its members (and other like-minded Alamedans) concluded that the time had come to take a more active role. As Paul Foreman, one of the organizers, explained to us,
My concept is that individual candidates and their supporters are so wrapped up in their own campaigns, they miss the forest for the trees. We now have a three-vote majority on Council that, from the point of view of folks like me, consistently prioritizes the narrow interests of special interest groups, especially those who support them politically, ahead of the interests of the community as a whole. Electing one or two candidates who are more concerned with the broad interests of the community accomplishes nothing. We need to elect at least three candidates whose mission is consistent with ours. In order to do this we need to have a PAC that concentrates on the forest, not the trees, and presents a slate of candidates that, if elected, may turn this City around.
The exploratory committee will present its recommendation for a new PAC at a public meeting this Wednesday at 7 p.m. at the RE/MAX building at 2437 Santa Clara Avenue. According to the announcement distributed by Mr. Foreman, the “mission” of the newly formed organization will be to elect a new Council majority who will
1. Make decisions based on the public good, not rewarding campaign contributions from public employee unions, developers and other special interest groups.
2. Make independent decisions based upon a clear understanding of all of the options, rather than rubber stamping staff recommendations.
3. Respect and encourage the advice of our City Treasurer and Auditor.
4. Evaluate development proposals based upon their impact on the entire community.
We find it hard to argue with any of these propositions. But drafting an appealing mission statement is only the first step toward becoming an effective force in local elections. So we thought today it might be useful to describe the arena the new PAC will be entering – if only to show the extent of the challenges it will face.
The chart below, drawn from the campaign disclosure statements filed with the City Clerk, shows spending by political action committees in mayoral and council races in the last five elections:
Let us highlight a few points.
First, the chart shows that the era of significant PAC involvement in Alameda mayoral and council elections began in 2010. It’s just a coincidence that Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the case striking down restrictions on campaign spending by corporations and unions, was decided that year. In fact, the reason for the uptick in PAC activity had more to do with then‑Acting City Manager Ann Marie Gallant than it did with U.S. Chief Justice John Roberts.
Faced with a budget crisis, Ms. Gallant had shut down a fire station and reduced the fire department head count. What’s worse, she had commissioned a study showing that the department could do its job with far fewer firefighters (which would mean far fewer union members). For these sins, the Alameda firefighters’ union decided that she had to go, and the union used its existing PAC as the vehicle to elect a mayor and council that would get rid of her.
In the previous mayor’s race in 2006, the IAFF Local 689 PAC had spent less than $10,000 on the mayoral and Council races combined. In 2010, the firefighters opened up the hydrants. The IAFF Local 689 PAC donated $13,300 in cash to mayoral candidate Marie Gilmore and $2,500 apiece in cash to Council candidates Rob Bonta and Lena Tam. (For good measure, it also gave Council candidate Jeff Mitchell $750.) In addition, the PAC spent $10,773.77 on mailers promoting Ms. Gilmore, Mr. Bonta, and Ms. Tam, as well as another $9,385.83 on a mailer slamming mayoral candidate Doug deHaan. All told, the firefighters’ union put $42,060.17 on the table, more than the total spent by all PACs in any previous year.
The plan worked. Ms. Gilmore was elected mayor, and Mr. Bonta and Ms. Tam Council members. Fewer than 90 days after the election, the three voted to terminate Ms. Gallant’s contract, and she was gone.
Second, the chart includes both direct cash donations to a candidate and separate spending by the PAC in support of the candidate. The contributions by labor PACs other than the firefighters’ union consisted almost exclusively of cash contributions, and, as the chart shows, the amount has gone up every year since 2008 (with 2012 as an outlier). For the firefighters’ union, it’s a different story. After 2010, when it both donated to campaigns and paid for mailers, the IAFF Local 689 PAC has eschewed giving cash and instead concentrated on spending over which the union itself exercised control. The totals for 2014 and 2016 consist exclusively of payments made by the firefighters’ union for fundraisers, mailers, and robocalls.
Third, the category in the chart labeled “political PACs” includes primarily donations by one campaign committee to another. Conventional wisdom holds that an ambitious politician can earn her cohorts’ loyalty by helping fund their campaigns; if so, State Assemblyman Rob Bonta has a jar full of chits. It probably isn’t surprising that Mr. Bonta donated a total of $7,500 to Councilman Jim Oddie’s first-time bid for office in 2014 – after all, Mr. Oddie works for Mr. Bonta – but Ms. Gilmore, Vice Mayor Malia Vella, and former Councilman Stewart Chen, D.C., also have benefited from the Assemblyman’s largesse.
Fourth, the chart includes a bar for spending by corporate PACs, but you’ll have to look closely to find an associated block. In fact, a review of the campaign disclosure statements shows no spending at all by corporate PACs in three of the last five local elections, and minimal spending ($500 and $2,000) in the other two. Our local leftists can rant all they want about how the evil corporate PACs control politics, but whatever may be the case on the national scene, it ain’t happening here.
Finally, the emergence in the last election of Alamedans United, the PAC sponsored by IAFF Local 689 and UFCW Local 5, changed the profile dramatically. The vast majority of Alameda firefighters’ union members do not live in the City, but at least this is where they work. Similarly, many of the other union locals whose PACs regularly contribute to mayoral and council campaigns represent people who are employed by the City, Alameda Municipal Power, or private Alameda employers like grocery stores. By contrast, Alamedans United got its money primarily from out-of-towners. For example, six different firefighters’ unions located outside Alameda contributed a total of $16,000 to the PAC. Perhaps the oddest donation was $9,500 from Shawn Wilson, a Brentwood resident who is chief of staff to Alameda County Supervisor Scott Haggerty.
Moreover, the amount spent by Alamedans United dwarfed the amount previously spent by union PACs in any previous mayoral and council race. Spending by the firefighters’ union after 2010 topped out at $27,345.17. Likewise, the most spent by any other labor PAC was $4,500 by the Northern California Regional Carpenters Council in 2014. By contrast, Alamedans United shelled out a total of $76,452.63 in 2016, of which $19,303.94 went to support Ms. Vella, $13,349.29 to support Councilwoman Marilyn Ezzy Ashcraft, and $17,205.10 to trash incumbent Councilman Tony Daysog.
Reviewing the data, it seems to us that the new citizens’ group would be setting an unrealistic goal for itself if it aspired to match the financial clout of the union-sponsored PACs.
The IAFF Local 689 PAC, of course, has a ready source of funding: the union dues paid by its members. Last year, for example, it took in $45,302.92 in “monetary contributions” from firefighters. Other PACs set up by unions whose members work for the City, like Operating Engineers Local 3 and IBEW Local 595, can tap similar sources of funds.
Likewise, the out-of-town real-estate firms who helped fund Alamedans United have every financial reason for contributing to a PAC that will support candidates favorable to development projects. It’s no wonder that North Cove Waterfront, the company developing the Del Monte warehouse, donated $5,000 to Alamedans United, or that Hartz Holdings, an affiliate of the company proposing to build a senior-assisted-living facility at Harbor Bay, kicked in $10,000.
The new PAC has neither of these sources available. Nor is it likely to be able to count on wealthy Alamedans to fund its mission. During the last five elections, we found only six local residents – we’ll keep their names private to spare them from fundraising pitches – who contributed $500 or more to a candidate in more than one mayoral or council race. For better or worse, Alamedans seem to find better things to do with their money than give it to political campaigns.
Moreover, the new PAC will need to be wary of soliciting donors who otherwise would be inclined to write a check to a specific candidate. Unless such donors contribute both to the candidate and to the PAC, the effect of the group’s fundraising might be to reduce the amount available for its favored candidates to spend on their own campaigns.
All that being said, we don’t want to sound too pessimistic. We’re not qualified, and wouldn’t presume, to tell the organizers of the new PAC how to run their show. But there are at least two areas for which we see a role for the organization. And neither of them would require any cash.
First, the PAC could set up a formal vetting process designed to determine which candidates truly agree with the principles expressed in its mission statement.
This is a standard practice for PACs. For example, both the firefighters’ union and the Alameda Labor Council require a candidate seeking an endorsement to demonstrate, by filling out a questionnaire and submitting to a follow-up interview, that she sees eye-to-eye with the positions taken by organized labor. If she can’t, or won’t, provide the appropriate assurances, she won’t make it onto the slate of endorsees.
The new PAC could do something similar. Indeed, if we had our druthers, we’d go beyond asking a candidate simply to ascribe to the draft mission statement, which, according to Mr. Foreman, was intentionally broad. Instead, we’d want to come up with a list of specific positions for a candidate to commit to. (Example: “I will not vote to spend unbudgeted funds on any project proposed by a City department – including but not limited to the fire department – without a damned good reason.”) Sure, this sounds like a litmus test, but we’d prefer that candidates earn an endorsement by making commitments rather than spewing platitudes.
Second, the new PAC could act as a resource for fact-checking claims made by candidates about their accomplishments and goals.
We’re not suggesting that the new PAC practice the sort of “negative campaigning” in which PACs previously engaged in local elections. No scurrilous hit pieces like the one sent out in 2010 by the IAFF Local 689 PAC attacking mayoral candidate Doug deHaan or those sent out in 2016 by Alamedans United attacking incumbent Councilman Tony Daysog and candidates Jennifer Roloff and Lena Tam.
Rather, what we have in mind is the kind of analysis Linda Qui of the New York Times regularly does of statements made by Donald Trump: here’s what the president said; here’s what the evidence shows. For example, should an incumbent Councilman running for re-election this November claim that he was “exonerated” in the scandal surrounding the appointment of a new fire chief, the PAC could point out, in the Alameda Sun and/or on social media, what the Jenkins report actually found.
Our feelings won’t be hurt if, come Wednesday, the organizers ignore, or reject, our suggestions. But, whatever they decide, we’ll be rooting for them to do for Alamedans what Indivisible is doing for Democrats.
Source: Campaign disclosure statements for mayoral and council races are available on the City website at http://docs.ci.alameda.ca.us/WebLink8/Browse.aspx?startid=310100&row=1&dbid=0.