Richmond’s 2014 election was defined by Chevron Corp.’s failed effort to get their favored candidates elected despite spending more than $3 million through an array of independent expenditure committees.
But instances observed during the campaign raise questions about how independent their committees and the candidates they supported really were. The murky situation could spell trouble for elections across the country as underfunded watchdog agencies and hazy campaign finance rules may be ill-equipped to deter coordination between committees and candidates.
Sarah Swanbeck, a campaign finance transparency advocate with California Common Cause, is concerned about how small elections like the one in Richmond will be affected by unlimited independent expenditures and lax oversight.
“The legal argument behind Citizens United, it just kind of falls apart when you see it in practice like (in Richmond),” Swanbeck said. “If people don’t understand the rules… you’re going to have people violating left and right.”
Under state law, independent expenditure committees are allowed to raise and spend unlimited amounts of money, as long as they do not coordinate with the candidates.
Councilmember Nat Bates, who was defeated in his race for mayor, was supported by Chevron to the tune of more than $500,000 funneled to independent committees. Bates’ own campaign raised a little more than $100,000.
The money was spent on billboards, mailers, TV and internet ads, canvassing, phone calls and signs.
Bates’ campaign and the independent committees appeared too close for comfort to some observers.
On Oct. 13 Richmond Working Families for Jobs 2014 reported an independent expenditure of $2,010.47 on signs in support of Bates.
On Sept. 24 Moving Forward reported an independent expenditure of $10,778.20 on signs in support of Bates.
In late October a stack of the signs “authorized and paid for” by Richmond Working Families was spotted in Bates’ headquarters, and signs authorized and paid for by Moving Forward were prominently displayed in the windows.
In addition to the signs, Bates’ website for his mayoral campaign featured on the home page a Youtube video, described by the Bates campaign as “The Dysfunctional Mr. (Tom) Butt,” which was authorized and paid for by Moving Forward. The video has since been removed from Youtube.
It’s not clear from campaign filings how much Moving Forward spent on producing that video, but the three shorter videos, which appeared on television, authorized and paid for by Moving Forward and uploaded to the same Youtube account, cost approximately $23,000 each.
According to guidelines distributed by the Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC), an expenditure will be considered a contribution subject to the $2,500 limit, and not an independent expenditure “after the candidate or committee has made or participated in making any decision regarding the content, timing, location, mode, intended audience, volume of distribution, or frequency of placement of the communication.”
When asked about the signs Bates said, “I don’t recall any signs in my office about Moving Forward.”
Asked if he had any training or guidance from the FPPC regarding the coordination rules Bates said, “I had no communication with Moving Forward.”
In an email, Moving Forward spokesperson Alex Doniach said the committee had no knowledge of whether Bates used its materials.
“In no way did we coordinate with any candidate controlled committee,” Doniach said.
Swanbeck was surprised to hear that Bates had displayed the signs at his headquarters, and featured the ad on his website.
“That just seems blatant to me” Swanbeck said. “In most places candidates will go out of their way to make sure there is not any semblance of coordination, even when behind the scenes there is wink-wink nudge-nudge coordination going on.”
While Bates’ campaign openly displayed material paid for by Moving Forward, he wasn’t the only candidate that appeared to have close ties to supportive independent expenditure committees.
Shortly after the polls closed on election night canvassers hired by Richmond Working Families, a union-funded independent expenditure group which supported the progressive slate in Richmond, entered the Richmond Progressive Alliance’s headquarters met with cheers and friendly greetings. That specific behavior might not be considered coordination, but certainly puts into question the “independent” monikers on these independent expenditure committees.
According to the Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC), the institution responsible for enforcing the Political Reform Act, independent expenditure committees are given a 74-page manual explaining the rules about coordination. Candidates are not given the same guidance.
The FPPC could not comment on the specifics of this case, but they said there are currently no investigations open regarding Moving Forward, Richmond Working Families, or any of the Richmond candidates.