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Duncan D. Hunter. / File photo by Sam Hodgson

Modern American campaign finance law, from the local to the state to the federal levels, is nauseatingly complex. There are attorneys and accountants who specialize in it and must constantly keep up to date on changes and new rules. If you want to make a serious run for office, you should get to know a couple of them.

Behind all the complexity, though, is one concept: to make sure the money going into a politician’s pocket is only from their salary, or legitimate personal income, and to prevent them from partaking in bribery, the most basic form of corruption.

But we also have a campaign and political system fueled by money. And that makes for precisely written laws that try to allow for legitimate campaign spending while keeping candidates from becoming personally indebted to campaign donors.

Rep. Duncan Hunter, who’s represented California’s 50th congressional district since 2008, allegedly crossed that line. Scott wrote a piece this week outlining how those lines are drawn, and why Hunter is in so much trouble.

Here are some more notes on Hunter’s legal troubles and political plight.

  • Right now, Hunter is defiant. But that’s likely to change. He faces a sentencing guideline, if convicted, that’s probably in the range of 36-48 months in prison. Two factors always humble politicians in these situations quickly. One is legal bills. The other is when prosecutors offer deals. In plea deals, they often ask politicians to step down.
  • We called Michael Zucchet, the former San Diego city councilman who has seen the might of the Department of Justice firsthand. Zucchet is routinely skeptical now of federal prosecutors after what happened to him. But he said he was struck by the indictment’s detail. In Zucchet’s case, he had faced a raid and months of speculation about how bad it would be for him. But the indictment had little punch. In contrast, Hunter’s indictment came out stronger.
    “I’m not sure he’s fully grasped how much trouble he’s in and how much pressure the federal government can put on you. Federal prosecutors have enormous leverage. It’s a long and expensive process, and they rarely lose,” Zucchet said.
  • One reason Zucchet said Hunter should worry is how much more severe federal sentencing guidelines are and how much more flexibility the prosecutors have. Zucchet was prosecuted along with Ralph Inzunza, his colleague on Council. Zucchet’s conviction was thrown out. But Inzunza’s was not.

Why? Like Hunter, Inzunza was charged with conspiracy. Prosecutors were able to use evidence that contributors to Inzunza’s campaign — in this case, a strip-club operator and his lobbyist — were confident that he would do their bidding. They were talking about how they had Inzunza. Prosecutors didn’t have similar evidence or recordings from Inzunza himself. But in federal court, for conspiracy, they only needed that hearsay evidence.

Where CA-50 Goes From Here

Despite Hunter’s indictment, his opponent, Ammar Campa-Najjar, still has a tough fight ahead of him.

In the June primary, Republicans collectively pulled just over 62 percent of the vote, and Republicans have a 14-point registration advantage in the district. This is not a traditional pickup opportunity.

Still, longstanding election prognosticator Cook Political Report this week moved the race from “Solid Republican” — meaning the seat is not in danger — to “Lean Republican” — or just to the right of a toss-up. Sabato’s Crystal Ball likewise shifted it from “Safe Republican” to “Lean Republican.”

It’s not impossible. Both Alabama (where now-Sen. Doug Jones defeated a scandal-plagued Republican last year) and Pennsylvania’s 18th District (where now-Rep. Conor Lamb pulled off a stunning upset this year) have a larger Republican tilt than CA-50.

  • Some local Republicans told us the optimum route for them would be for Hunter to win the seat and resign shortly after, provoking a special election. His district is so heavily bent to Republicans that someone with less baggage could win and hold it long-term.
  • Another Republican professional laid why Hunter’s seat could really be in danger.

Money: Democrats have already proven prolific fundraisers this cycle, and the indictment should create a windfall for Campa-Najjar. And not only is Hunter already at a financial disadvantage, but his troubles will make it even harder to raise more money. Outside groups like the National Republican Congressional Committee may want to stay away from a candidate facing criminal charges.

Legal bills could now dominate the money Hunter does have. Whatever he spends defending himself is money he can’t spend communicating with voters.

Empty airwaves: There aren’t a lot of competitive, partisan races in the county this year. That means there won’t be much competition between candidates buying advertising space on TV to introduce themselves to voters. If Campa-Najjar raises enough, he’ll be able to stretch his dollar quite a ways on ad time.

  • What’s at stake: Democrat Mike Levin is a slight favorite to win CA-49, Rep. Darrell Issa’s seat, where he’s facing off with Diane Harkey. Dems represent the three other congressional seats in the county, and none of them is at serious risk this cycle. If Democrats somehow pull off a shocking upset against Hunter, they’d control all five congressional seats in San Diego for the first time.

Hotel Tax Resurrection Has More Than Ghost of Chance

Signature-gatherers were out in force to ensure a hotel-tax hike to fund a Convention Center expansion can make it on the November ballot. / Photo by Kinsee Morlan

Drop that hammer! Don’t pound nails into the convention-center ballot measure’s offing just yet.

While it’s not going on the ballot this November, petition signatures are still being counted, and a land deal that’s crucial to plans to expand the convention center is hanging fire.

But as the registrar figures out whether proponents of the initiative collected enough signatures to make the 2020 ballot, we had a simple question: How, specifically, does that process work?

Let’s start at the top. Proponents needed 71,646 valid signatures from registered voters. The ballot measure proponents submitted 114,720, about as many people as live in Carlsbad.

But petition signatures are often deemed invalid for various reasons. The signer might not be a registered voter, might not be registered here, might have signed multiple times or the signature may not match the one in voter files.

Vetting signatures for these kinds of problems is expensive, so the firms that gather signatures instead rely on spot checks for big petition drives.

That’s what the registrar of voters does too. When petitions seeking a ballot measure are submitted, the registrar’s staff checks a sampling of petition signatures — 3 percent, or 3,442, in this case — and determines how many are valid. It then projects how many will be valid overall.

This is not a matter of simple high-school-level math, however. Duplicate signatures in sample counts complicate things quite a bit. More than a handful duplicates in a sample is a sign that the entire batch has tons of invalid signatures — and it’s a sign that a petition campaign was poorly run.

(For a prime example of death-by-duplicates, look back at a botched bid for a school district reform measure in 2011.)

This is where high-level number-juggling comes in. California and other states require official signature counters to use complex statistical formulas to “weigh” duplicates. Here’s just part of the rules for California: “To determine the weight to be assigned to each duplicate signature found in the sample, multiply the value of each signature computed in Section 20531(a), above, times the computation in Section 20531(a), above, minus one.”

Yikes.

If that process leads to a projection that proponents have 110 percent of the needed signatures, then the measure is deemed to have gotten enough to go directly onto the ballot without a full check. If it falls between 95 percent and 110 percent, then a full check is needed. Under 95 percent? The measure is kaput.

On the convention center measure, the registrar used the required formula — which accounted for four duplicates in the sample count — and estimated the full batch for the convention-center measure would have 72,713 valid signatures. That’s 101 percent of the necessary total.

What’s the likelihood that the full count will turn up enough valid signatures? Since my math skills are only slightly above checkbook-balancing level, I contacted a Texas statistician who’s studied how these kinds of counts work.

Mary Whiteside, a professor at the University of Texas At Arlington, said it’s not possible to come up with a Nate Silver-style probability of success.

However, she said, “you can tell your readers that it is more likely than not that the ultimate full count will put the measure over the top.”

Randy Dotinga

It’s Been a Block-Buster Few Months for Social Media Lawsuits

Image via Shutterstock

El Cajon City Councilman Ben Kalasho likes to post slow-motion videos of his dog, highlight his fights with fellow pols and reporters, among other things. I know this because I am not (yet) blocked from viewing his Facebook page — which would be otherwise unremarkable if Kalasho and other local politicians weren’t currently facing lawsuits for doing exactly that.

Activist Mark Lane, who pops up in the news everywhere from National City to Oceanside, has sued Kalasho for blocking him on Facebook.

Escondido Mayor Sam Abed is also facing a federal lawsuit for blocking people on Facebook. Attorney Cory Briggs is representing the plaintiffs in both cases.

Abed’s “criticism-suppressing conduct as alleged in this pleading violated, among other things, Plaintiff’s rights of free expression and to criticize the government as guaranteed by the California Constitution,” the suit alleges.

The door to such suits, of course, was opened wider thanks to a lawsuit that found President Donald Trump’s blocking of critics on Twitter amounted to a violation of the U.S. Constitution.

In a report this week, NBC 7 found that blocking people is relatively routine among local politicians. “National City’s Vice Mayor Albert Mendivil blocked the most accounts, according to the records received. He blocked 69 Facebook users from his page,” NBC found.

NBC requested information on blocked accounts for every elected official in the county for its report. The only politician who didn’t respond was … Kalasho.

National City Mayor Ron Morrison blocked 21 users — he’s also facing a lawsuit, for another plaintiff represented by Briggs.

It’s not just a problem for politicians in San Diego.

Elsewhere in California, state Sen. Richard Pan, who wrote a landmark law requiring most California schoolchildren to obtain vaccinations, has been sued by anti-vaccination activists whom Pan blocked on Twitter.

That suit raised the ire of Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, who co-wrote the bill and who herself has sparred with anti-vaxxers.

“Can I block people who say they hope my daughter gets raped by an immigrant?” she asked on Twitter. “How about the ones who send me nudes? Can I block people that ask me to have sex? What if they do it 10x? Can I block people who post 25 things in a row, preventing my constituents from engaging?”

The judge in the Trump case found that the president couldn’t block people “in response to the political views that person has expressed” but didn’t appear to weigh in on whether blocking people for other reasons — like harassment, or other behavior that violates a site’s terms — would be OK.

— Sara Libby

Andrew Keatts

I'm Andrew Keatts, a managing editor for projects and investigations at Voice of San Diego. Please contact me if you'd like at andrew.keatts@voiceofsandiego.org...

Scott Lewis

Scott Lewis oversees Voice of San Diego’s operations, website and daily functions as Editor in Chief. He also writes about local politics, where he frequently...

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