In 2012, when the money started pouring in, Richmond residents saw it in the billboards that loomed large along the city’s busiest streets. Bombastic attack ads looped on television. Flashy fliers filled mailboxes.
That election year, local campaigns spent nearly $4 million to sway voters. Since then, millions more—contributed mostly by corporations, but also by nonprofits and unions—have flowed through the city’s elections, prompting watchdogs to emphasize the importance of transparency in government and close attention to campaign finance reports.
“It’s important for democracy,” said Bruce Freed, president and founder of the Center for Political Accountability, a Washington D.C.-based nonprofit that tracks campaign spending nationally. “It’s important for the public to know because then they know who is supporting and who is bankrolling candidates—who candidates may owe their loyalty to.”
Richmond residents can see exactly that online, at the Richmond City Clerk’s webpage.
The last Friday of September was the first pre-election filing deadline for city council candidates to submit campaign finance reports. For some contenders, it was the first chance for the public to see the inner financial workings of their campaigns, such as who gives them money and how much they spend.
However, because of state and federal campaign finance laws, big money doesn’t flow into campaigns for individual candidates; such donations are capped at $2,500. But it can be spent through Political Action Committees (PACs), non-profits or a labyrinthine combination of the two.
In the last two city council election cycles, it was the disclosure and examination of these donations, known as independent expenditure reports, that led to revelations about the millions Chevron spent on Richmond city elections.
This year, however, Moving Forward, Chevron’s PAC, is notably absent from campaign finance report filings. And, in general, the high-level spending of elections past is not on display.
So far, Richmond’s Measure L, an ordinance that would control rent increases, has attracted the most spending this year. The California Apartment Association Issues Committee—this election’s biggest contributor—has spent between $61,000 and $81,000 opposing the measure. The committee is also active outside of Richmond and has shelled out over half a million fighting rent control measures across the Bay Area.
Fair and Affordable Richmond, which is composed of labor unions and social justice organizations, is the ballot measure’s primary supporter. The coalition has spent just over $5,000 in cash to support the ordinance. But filings also show the committee has spent more than $128,000 in “nonmonetary contributions”—such as phone banking and informational brochures.
Both locally and nationally, money has long translated into electoral might in U.S. politics. However, the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in the high-profile case of Citizens United v. Federal Election Committee, which prohibited government from limiting the amount of money corporations and labor unions could spend on campaigns, marked a new age of unfettered spending, said Freed.
Subsequent and lesser-known court decisions, such as McCutcheon v. Federal Election Committee, further deregulated campaign spending, from federal down to local races.
“The Supreme Court decisions uncapped spending throughout the whole system,” Freed said.
The decisions were the culmination of sustained attacks on campaign spending by corporations and moneyed interests, said Kathay Feng, executive director of California Common Cause, a nonprofit that advocates for transparency in government.
“Citizens United was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” she said.
The decisions made waves nationally, as some argued they would allow the corporate boardroom to strengthen its grip on governance, while others stated that the First Amendment protected the right to spend freely in favor of or opposition to a political cause.
But it was another two years before the impact of these cases was felt in Richmond city elections.
By the 2012 cycle, Chevron had seen its influence over city council dwindle, as progressive candidates defeated councilmembers sympathetic to the oil refinery. Four years and a landmark Supreme Court decision later, Chevron jumped on the opportunity to win back a supportive majority.
Chevron poured $1.4 million into the 2012 elections, spending in support of the campaigns of Nat Bates, Gary Bell and Bea Roberson, and in opposition to candidates aligned with the Richmond Progressive Alliance (RPA). That year, Chevron also established its Political Action Committee (PAC), Moving Forward, which the oil giant would use to spend millions more in future elections.
Two of the three candidates backed by Moving Forward money, Bates and Bell, won city council seats. Bates received the most votes overall that year.
Bates, Bell and Roberson did not raise significantly more than their opponents through individual contributions to their campaigns. But factoring in Chevron’s expenditures, their campaigns vastly outspent their challengers’. And, in a tactic that Moving Forward organizers would reuse in the 2014 campaign, large billboards and glossy mailers boosted candidates’ name recognition.
But Chevron did not see the same success in 2014.
Less than two weeks before that year’s election, San Francisco State political scientist and Richmond resident Robert Smith presciently told Richmond Confidential that Chevron’s exorbitant spending could backfire and “offend people’s democratic sensibilities, people who might otherwise be uninterested.”
“Throwing your weight around that excessively is just going beyond the pale,” Smith said.
Indeed, after funneling more than $3 million into the City Council elections, all three Moving Forward-supported candidates—Donna Powers, Charles Ramsey and Al Martinez—along with the PAC’s pick for mayor, Nat Bates, lost their bids.
Again, Chevron also spent lavishly in opposition of three City Council candidates, the RPA’s Gayle McLaughlin, Jovanka Beckles and Eduardo Martinez—all of whom won seats on the council.
Whether voters agree or disagree with a particular issue or candidate is not the point, Feng said. The publishing and examination of campaign finance reports promotes a more informed electorate.
“It tells you who stands where and you make your decision,” she said. “Otherwise, for a lot of people, it’s very hard to distinguish one name from another or follow their voting record. So, where the money is coming from and who is supporting them becomes a litmus test.”
In general, Freed said, substantial contributions in support of or opposition to a particular issue or candidate should raise a red flag for voters.
“You have to ask, why are they doing that?” he said. “What is their motive? What are they seeking to gain? What are they seeking to prevent? What are they seeking to achieve?”