Thursday, May 31, 2007 | Candidates for city office can begin raking in money for the 2008 campaigns Monday, many months before campaigns will begin hitting their stride.

Yet, the checks cut by supporters directly to candidates have become increasingly outweighed by the heft of political parties, which have transformed the traditionally nonpartisan city races by toting hundreds of thousands of dollars in their recent campaign war chests.

Red and Blue And Green All Over

  • The Issue: Hundreds of thousands of dollars are being spent on behalf of — and in coordination with — the parties’ anointed candidates.
  • What It Means: Critics note that it appears member communications give political donors a way to wield heavy influence outside of the city’s regulatory framework.
  • The Bigger Picture: The city’s Ethics Commission wants the ability to regulate the amount a political party can receive from a donor, but state legislation is being considered that would prohibit it.

Since the 2004 elections, political parties’ stepped up involvement has elevated their roles from helping hands to kingmakers, as they have since leveraged their ability to spend unlimited amounts on spreading their anointed candidates’ campaign messages to their affiliated voters.

Local laws attempt to restrain the influence of individual campaign donors by limiting individuals to giving $320 per candidate for citywide elections and $270 for City Council races in each election cycles. But, through political parties, big donors can now contribute as much as they like to a political party. The party, in turn, spends those funds on its favorite candidates’ behalf. Well-heeled groups have spent tens of thousands of dollars on local elections as a result.

“Member communications have probably, effectively destructed contribution limits at the city of San Diego,” political consultant John Kern said.

After keeping a very low profile in election financing, local Democratic and Republican parties have spent about $1.6 million in the last four municipal elections on member communications — political advertisements voters receive from their political party of choice.

The newfound fuel has come from donors, mainly hailing from the business community, who want to spend thousands on a candidate instead of hundreds. Groups such as Atlas Hotels and the Sycuan tribe loaded $47,900 and $70,099, respectively, into the local Republican Party’s coffers in 2005 and 2006. Meanwhile, their executives resorted to spending just a few hundred on the candidates of their choice.

In turn, the parties spend hundreds of thousands of dollars they collect communicating praise for their preferred candidates to their members.

Other big spenders in elections, such as labor unions or business organizations, are forced by law to strategize independent of individual candidates. However, political parties coordinate — almost seamlessly — with the candidate about what the mail says and when they receive it.

The landscape changed in 2002, the election cycle after California voters approved Proposition 34, a measure that revised campaign laws and separated political parties’ contributions from those of other groups.

Before that, the party’s endorsement didn’t mean as much financially.

“Generally, if you’ve got the party’s endorsement, they would just walk the precincts,” local political consultant Christopher Crotty said.

Then, the major dollars in a campaign would come from labor unions or business groups. But those outside dollars had to be spent independent from the candidate, meaning the group paying for the ad had to also craft the message.

“The problem with an independent expenditure, by nature, you have no control over what the message is,” Crotty said.

Now, candidates who win the endorsement of the county Democratic or Republican parties are able to tap a major financial artery for their campaigns.

By securing the party’s endorsement, a candidate can rely on the party to focus on directing mail and telephone calls to affiliated voters that includes a message that plays up to the interests of the party’s base. The candidate’s committee is then able to free up money to target independent voters who don’t qualify to receive the member communications.

“In effect, it allows you to have someone else take care of your base while you can concentrate on getting to the other side,” Kern said.

Whereas outside groups had spent some money in prior elections, the city saw the rise of partisan activity beginning in 2004. During the 2002 council races, before member communications, about $330,000 was spent independent of the candidates. Beginning in 2004, outside expenditures hit million-dollar heights with member communications accounting for more than half of those expenditures.

During the 2005 campaign for the District 2 council seat, Kevin Faulconer was better equipped to separate himself from the pack of 17 candidates after the San Diego County Republican Party spent nearly $123,000 on his November primary.

In the January runoff, the Republican Party spent about $271,000 on member communications for Faulconer, more than the entire amount spent on behalf of Lorena Gonzalez, the race’s runner-up, in both the primary and runoff contests.

But regulators are taking notice of the parties’ stepped-up presence.

“Why do they need so much money to communicate with their members?” Ethics Commission Chairwoman Dorothy Leonard said. “It’s fine that you can phone-bank and send out multiple mailings, but why do you need 200-something-thousand dollars to do that?”

“We’ve seen it over the years, it’s getting more and more partisan,” she said.

Leonard said the commission, which makes recommendations about and enforces the city’s elections law, wants to study whether to cap the amount an individual or company contributes to a political party — a tack taken by other local governments, including the state of California.

But state lawmakers are pushing legislation that would render the Ethics Commission and other municipal regulators powerless when it comes to setting limits on a party’s benefactors.

The legislation’s proponents say barring local governments from making their own restrictions clears up the confusion of having multiple sets of rules.

“You would unfairly create a patchwork if you have all the local organizations doing what they want,” said Mike Zimmerman, chief of staff to Assemblyman Martin Garrick, the Carlsbad Republican who authored the legislation.

Leonard said she expects Garrick’s legislation to sail through the state Capitol, disabling the ethics panel from considering member communications when it takes up other election law matters later this year.

Please contact Evan McLaughlin directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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