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I’ve been meaning to say something about this for a while but haven’t had a chance. Recently Phil Thalheimer, who is running against two opponents to replace Councilman Scott Peters in San Diego’s District 1, was curiously candid with our new political reporter, David Washburn.

Washburn was doing a simple collection of each candidate’s fundraising after the last reporting period ended. Thalheimer told Washburn that he wasn’t going to be giving his campaign any loans this year. Instead, he’d be funding his campaign with his own contributions.

Now, this is more than jargon. Before last year, a candidate, like Thalheimer, anyone, could loan their own campaign any amount of money they pleased. And they used to have as much time as they pleased to pay this back — meaning to pay themselves back. And that meant that rather than funding their own campaign, they could treat their personal donations to their own campaign more like investments. They are investments that may not return a profit, but they might return something — including a little cash reimbursement.

How so? Well, say you are a wealthy person who wants to be mayor. Let’s say also that you either, a) don’t want to ask people for money, or b) that people just won’t give you money. In that case, you can invest in yourself. In the past a person could loan their campaign as much as they wanted. And it was considered a loan — to yourself. Why? Well, like any loan, it can be paid back.

And how do they pay it back? Well, people may not want to give you money while you’re running for election, but everyone wants to give you money once you win the election. And that’s what happened. The candidate would invest in his own campaign, win, and then hold fundraisers to pay himself back. It was the only legal way that a person can give a public official money that the public official could put right into his pocket.

But that all changed recently. Now, a candidate can only loan their campaign $100,000 and they only have 180 days to pay it back after an election. They can give themselves as much as they want. So that’s why Steve Francis loaned himself $100,000 and then gave himself the millions that remained to fund all those commercials. He has since pledged not to raise money from supporters after the election to replenish his wallet.

Not so for Thalheimer. The candidate ran for office in 2004 — before the new rules. And the new rules can’t be applied to him and others who ran that year. So he has since kept that campaign account from 2004 open. Why? He still wants to replenish his wallet after spending the millions he did that year. And he told Washburn that that’s exactly what he would be doing: Once he won the election, he’d be asking his newfound friends for money to pay himself back.

And unlike any other candidate running for City Council this year, he’ll have all the time in the world to do it.

SCOTT LEWIS

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