When the city’s campaign reporting and limitation ordinance was adopted in 1973 I was a reporter and discussed with the then head of Common Cause, Mike Walsh, the issue of limits vs. disclosure. Mike believed there should be both. I believe then, and I believe now, there should be complete disclosure but no contribution limits because they don’t accomplish any of the goals they are supposed to and, in fact, have the opposite effect.
I also believe there are no longer effective contribution limits in the city of San Diego. The fact is, court cases and state law allow political parties to solicit and accept contributions in the hundreds of thousands of dollars and spend that money in city races for “member communications” with the coordination and knowledge of the candidates. What that means in practical terms is that if a candidate gets the Republican or Democrat party endorsement, that endorsed candidate can get people to contribute unlimited amounts to the Party for “member” communication.
Here is how it works: The Party can only communicate with its own “members.” Let’s say I am a Democrat running for City Council and under the $270 per person city contribution limit I raise $100,000. I can spend that money communicating with Republican and Independents and ignore Democrats because I can raise unlimited amounts for the Party and the Party will spend it on my behalf communicating with Democrats. As a candidate I can even tell them how to spend it.
I ask: How can contribution limits in the city mean anything if parties can coordinate with their endorsed candidates and spend unlimited amounts of money?
In addition there are the so-called “independent expenditures,” in which individuals and businesses can spend unlimited amounts of money on behalf of candidates and issues. The only difference between this and “member communications” is that it cannot be done at the behest of, or coordinated with, the candidate or his/her agents.
And finally, wealthy candidates have a constitutional right to spend their own money for their own campaigns.
I believe the record will show that contribution limits in the city of San Diego have not given the public confidence that elections and government are cleaner; they have not opened the door to multiple “people” candidates; and they have not reduced the cost of campaigns — all goals of the original ordinance. And the limits have made the playing field very, very uneven.
In short, I believe there should be 100 percent disclosure and no contribution limits. If the people want to vote for someone who gets big contributions and they know it, let them vote for that candidate.
I also believe the ban on organization, business and union contributions should be lifted. It serves no useful purpose and encourages organizations, unions and businesses to spend large sums for independent expenditure campaigns and member communications. It would be better to give that money directly to the candidate and I believe that is what would happen if the ban was eliminated.
— JOHN KERN