2020 was a banner year for campaign spending in the City of Alameda.
More than $100,000 apiece was spent on the efforts to re-elect Councilwoman Malia Vella (who won) and Councilman Jim Oddie (who didn’t). The outlays made by or on behalf of two incumbents easily eclipsed the highest amount spent for any mayoral and council candidate in the five previous municipal elections.
Likewise, the Alameda firefighters’ union PAC doled out more than $90,000 (according to its own campaign statements) or $75,000 (according to the candidates’ statements) to promote Ms. Vella’s and Mr. Oddie’s re-election bids. This exceeded by far the highest amount the union had spent on behalf of any municipal candidate in the five previous elections.
Moreover, it was only a portion of the total influx of union cash into the Vella and Oddie campaigns. Taken together, organized labor gave the two (or spent on their behalf) more than $175,000; the unions contributed nothing to any of the other three candidates running for Council.
These are some of the highlights of the 2020 campaign statements filed by the candidate committees and the analysis of those statements by the Alameda League of Women Voters (which is posted on its website). The Merry-Go-Round commends the entire analysis to our readers, but today we’ll focus on a few of the key points.
Total spending. Here are the spending totals for 2019 and 2020 reported by the five Council candidates:* Ms. Vella’s total includes $28,207.50 paid with campaign funds to the law firm of Coblentz Patch Duffy & Bass, which represented her in connection with the multiple investigations into her role in the push to get the City Manager to give the fire chief’s job to the firefighters’ union’s former president.
Before 2020, Mr. Oddie held both first and second place in the spending contest in recent elections: he and his allies spent $85,026.71 on his 2018 re‑election bid (he came in third) after having laid out $58,075 in his 2014 campaign (he came in second). Before then, for numbers anywhere near those in 2020 one has to go all the way back to 2004, when self-funded candidate Pat Bail shelled out $110,531.97 on her unsuccessful Council campaign.
Firefighters’ union spending. For the 2020 election, the firefighters’ union PAC went all out – or all in – to re-elect Ms. Vella and Mr. Oddie to the Council that was expected to vote on the next round of public-safety union contracts. (The contracts were set to expire in December 2021, but after the election the outgoing Council – which included both Ms. Vella and Mr. Oddie – agreed to extend them for another two years until December 2023.)
According to the campaign statements filed by the PAC, it spent $46,186.41 on Ms. Vella’s campaign and $45,975.77 on Mr. Oddie’s campaign. In both cases the expenditures included $13,106.75 for campaign literature and mailing and $8,414.34 for digital advertising, text messages, and “social media management.”
(The campaign statements filed by the two candidates themselves show a lower amount of “non-monetary” contributions by the firefighters’ union than the PAC’s own statements show. Moreover, Ms. Vella’s statements do not list a $6,000 cash contribution that the PAC disclosed was made to her campaign. We are at a loss to explain the discrepancies.)
Spending by the firefighters’ union PAC in the five previous elections pales by comparison. The amount spent in 2020 is more than double the expenditures made by the PAC in 2010 ($41,310.14) to elect the pro-union slate of Marie Gilmore for mayor and Rob Bonta and Lena Tam for Council. And it far surpasses the amounts spent by the union in subsequent elections ($17,441.94 in 2012; $17,884.88 in 2014; $4,027.76 in 2016; and $25,050.17 in 2018) on the mayoral and council candidates it endorsed.
Sources of funds. The LWV analysis breaks down the campaign contributions three ways: by type, by location, and by size. To those who believe in following the money, the results are instructive.
Here’s the chart by type:
As this chart shows, Ms. Vella and Mr. Oddie got most of their contributions from organized labor: 85 percent (amounting to $113,798) for Ms. Vella and 56 percent (amounting to $61,670) for Mr. Oddie. None of the other three candidates took any money from unions. Indeed, all three raised their funds entirely from individuals.
Next, the chart by location:
As this chart shows, 62 percent of Ms. Vella’s contributions, and 49 percent of Mr. Oddie’s, came from outside Alameda. By contrast, Gil Codiga raised almost all of his money, and Trish Spencer more than three-quarters of hers, from Island City sources.
Finally, the chart by size:
As this chart shows, contributions of $1,000 or more represented 87 percent of the total funds raised by Ms. Vella and 80 percent of the total funds raised by Mr. Oddie. Here are the lists of the top 10 donors (and ties) for each candidate gleaned by the LWV from the campaign statements:
N.B. We recognize most of the names on this list, but there are two we can only guess about. Variphy, Inc., describes itself as a provider of “Cisco UC Tools and Analytics”; Mr. Oddie’s LinkedIn profile identifies him as “VP Finance, General Counsel” of the firm. A man named John Foster is a childhood friend of former State Senator (and Democratic party kingpin) Don Perata; he owns an Oakland-based billboard advertising company called Foster Interstate Media, Inc.
What conclusions can we draw from this data?
First, it’s clear that money alone doesn’t determine results. If it did, Councilman Oddie would be settling in for four more years of delivering bromides and broadsides from the dais, and Ms. Spencer would be bemoaning her second electoral loss in a row. Instead, voters’ perceptions about the character strengths and weaknesses of these two well-known candidates probably mattered more than all the mailers, digital advertising, and robocalls their supporters’ funds enabled them to deploy.
Second, Ms. Vella has established herself as a favorite among union financiers. Having been anointed as the firefighters’ union’s candidate in 2016, she could have been expected – as long as she continued to toe the line – to benefit from IAFF Local 689’s largess. Likewise, as the “public policy coordinator” for Teamsters’ Local 856, she could have been expected to get cash not just from the local but from the national body as well. She did both of these things. But the data also shows that a dozen other labor organizations besides the firefighters’ union and the Teamsters contributed a total of $57,200 to her
re-election campaign. That’s more than any candidate other than Mr. Oddie received from all of his or her donors.
Third, even though three of five candidates got nothing at all from organized labor, funds donated or spent by unions represented more than half of the total spent by or on behalf of all candidates (and 73 percent of the total spent for Ms. Vella and Mr. Oddie combined) in the 2020 election. One doesn’t have to be Harvard Law professor Lawrence Lessig, author of Republic, Lost, to be troubled by the dominant role played by a single interest group – in this case, organized labor – in funding campaigns in Alameda. (Professor Lessig, it should be noted, would be troubled by dominance of any interest group.)
The unions who finance candidates for local office may not dictate legislation, but, at the very least, their voices are heard – and their policy agendas often are implemented. Consider a few actions taken by our City Council in recent years: Guarantee minimum annual raises for public-safety union members? Approved in April 2015. Accelerate the increase in the minimum wage? Passed in October 2018. Require developers and lessees of City-owned property to enter into union-friendly project labor agreements? Passed in October 2016 and February 2021.
Actions like these surely benefited the unions and their membership. But did they serve the public interest? Guaranteed public-safety union raises balloon General Fund expenses and increase pension liabilities. Accelerated minimum wage hikes hurt small businesses. PLAs boost construction costs and thereby make projects less feasible. An unconflicted officeholder may be able objectively to weigh these costs against the purported benefits in deciding how to vote; a politician who relies so heavily on organized labor for campaign funds may not be so inclined.
In addition to analyzing the contributions to Council candidates, the LWV also looked at the contributions for and against Measure Z, the Council-sponsored initiative to repeal Measure A’s ban on multi-family housing and limitation on residential density. Among the highlights:
- The pro-repeal campaign committee calling itself “Alamedans for Housing” spent seven times more than its opponents (who called their committee “Love Alameda”) – $147,636.54 to $21,003.85 – yet Measure Z still lost by a margin of 59.4 percent to 40.6 percent.
- The Measure Z opponents raised 99 percent of their funds in Alameda, all of it from individuals. The proponents got 27 percent of their cash from off the island, and corporations and other businesses accounted for 61 percent of the total.
- The major donors supporting Measure Z included three real-estate development firms (which gave a total of $9,500); three construction-trade unions (which gave a total of $6,000), and the National Association of Home Builders’ PAC, which gave $5,000.
- It is rare in Alameda politics for any one individual to make large campaign contributions. But Measure Z had two such big-bucks benefactors: Adam Elsesser, CEO of Penumbra, Inc., the medical device company with offices in the Harbor Bay Business Park, who gave $10,000 personally and whose company donated $30,000; and Michael Sorochinsky, CEO of Cypress Equity Investments, the real-estate investment firm that is one of the major financial backers of Alameda Point Partners, who gave $5,000.
Our main takeaway from this data is that, again, money alone doesn’t determine results. Indeed, one could argue that the Measure Z proponents raised too much money for their campaign – with all those mailers paid for by all that cash, they ended up delivering a confusing and inconsistent message. By contrast, with a far more limited budget, the Measure Z opponents were able to focus on a single, simple theme.
Moreover, we found it somewhat ironic that, in the battle over Measure Z, the corporate money was all on the “progressive” side of the issue. The real-estate developers, home builders, and construction-trade unions, of course, had an economic interest in seeing Measure A repealed, since, presumably, repeal would create opportunities for more high-density residential projects and more well-paying construction jobs. But what was in it for Penumbra? Or for Exelixis, the biotechnology company also located in the Harbor Bay Business Park, which donated $20,000? Maybe businesspeople don’t deserve to be labeled reactionaries after all.
The campaign statements for 2000 through 2017 years are available on the City website: http://docs.alamedaca.gov/WebLink/Browse.aspx?id=310100&dbid=0&repo=CityofAlameda.
Beginning with 2018, they have been posted on https://www.southtechhosting.com/AlamedaCity/CampaignDocsWebRetrieval/.
The LWV analysis may be found at https://www.lwvalameda.org/uploads/8/9/2/9/89297946/november_3_2020-california_general_election_updated_11_feb_2021.pdf.