Campaign finance reports provide litmus test for voters as election approaches

As the 2016 election draws near, Richmond voters are afforded the opportunity to see where the city council hopefuls are getting their money. Photo by Catherine Schuknecht.

As the 2016 election draws near, Richmond voters are afforded the opportunity to see where the city council hopefuls are getting their money. Photo by Catherine Schuknecht.

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?”

11 Comments

  1. Confidential Commenter

    Do not be too quick to judge candidates by such a “litmus test”. I voted for the RPA by such standards and I’ve come to deeply regret that decision. I would actually vote FOR a Chevron backed candidate over those I voted for in 2012 were they the better candidate.. While I generally agree with getting money out of politics you still must apply common sense to your choice. Just because a candidate refuses corporate donations doesn’t mean they are the best qualified for the postion. If you watch only one city council meeting that will quickly become quite clear to you.

  2. Richmond Resident

    There are people so vehemently against rent control that they are now saying they would vote for a completely coopted corporate candidate.

    People are talking in illogical circles to justify corporate money in politics when there is no excuse for it. We’re in a new era now, there’s no need for it, and there are a lot of politicians running around with their tails between their legs because they were behind the curve.

    • Confidential Commenter

      Well not so fast. Take rent control out of the equation and I still stand by my comments. Candidates in Richmond who take no corporate money have still done foolish things.
      Space weapons/ mind control
      Outrageous comments about our police.
      Playing Scrabble during serious meetings.
      Lack of understanding of fiscal matters.
      Just to name a few things off the top of my head.
      I’m voting for Vinay Pimple and Cesar Zepeda for example, because I believe them the best candidates who will do the most good for Richmond, regardless who gives them money.
      These two have amply demonstrated that they will be independent thinkers who make the best choices based on facts reason and good common sense.
      I cannot say the same for the RPA and anyone being completely honest with themselves and the record cannot either.

      • Eduardo Martinez

        Confidential Commenter,
        You are comparing individuals with an organization; that makes no sense, especially when you are insinuating a comparison with individuals on the city council. You then go on to state your opinion with no facts to reinforce them. I can guarantee you that the voting records of all city council members reflect an independence of thought that is guided by the values of the council members. We all rely on “facts” and good common sense; social values determine where the evaluation of issues will lead a thinker.

        • Confidential Commenter

          Hello Council member Martinez,
          Thank you for your post. Yet I respectfully suggest you are not being honest with yourself sir.

          “You are comparing individuals with an organization; that makes no sense, especially when you are insinuating a comparison with individuals on the city council.”

          I think it makes a lot of sense in regards to RPA members, especially when one considers that you are all members of the same political organization and pretty much vote as a block on most issues. Isn’t this what your group itself suggests as a reason to elect a RPA majority in November? If it isn’t then why would you need a RPA majority if all you really were concerned about is independent council members? If your claims were true then you would actually be very concerned about one group having complete domination on the council, and would prefer instead diversity of thought in the council.

          “You then go on to state your opinion with no facts to reinforce them.”

          Actually, I did mention several facts to back up my claims of things the allegedly superior council members have done that lack common sense or showed poor judgement. Let us add the Berkeley Global Campus to that list as well. It’s interesting to note that rather than choose to take a hard look at themselves and allow that they had the right goals, but they’ve learned a thing or two about going about them and will adjust accordingly in the future, they instead chose to accuse the mayor of making up lies to discredit the RPA. Remember that BGC spokesperson Ruben Lizardo publicly backed up Mayor Butts statement. I find it a red flag that the RPA never admits to making any mistakes ever. Like when they terrified Oscar Garcias aunt and the family asked for an apology they never in my knowledge received.

          “I can guarantee you that the voting records of all city council members reflect an independence of thought that is guided by the values of the council members”

          That is wonderful news. Then you agree then with my original statement not to be too quick to judge a candidate by the litmus test you offer to voters as the reason to vote for an RPA candidate. Here I wish to recommend anyone reading this to read Jael Myricks post about this on Tom Butts forum.

          “We all rely on “facts” and good common sense; social values determine where the evaluation of issues will lead a thinker.”

          An encouraging thought. And I suggest a good reason not to vote control of the City council away to any one group regardless of political affinities but rather to maintain a diversity and freedom of thought containing the checks and balances that have historically proved so necessary in good and efficient government.

          And with that dear sir I conclude and thank you again for your comments and your service to our community .

  3. Deborah Bayer

    The big money is now coming from charter school organizations. Both Tom Panas and Miriam Sequiera have received over $100,000 from charter school backers — you won’t find that in their literature. Public education made our country great — now Wall Street wants to privatize it.

    • Confidential Commenter

      I understand your concerns Deborah. I also have always believed in our public school system. But we have to ask ourselves why parents keep fleeing the public schools for alternatives including charter schools. Obviously, something is wrong with our public school system that parents go to such extreme measures to avoid them. And obviously the charter schools are filling a need and demand that the public schools apparently cannot for these people. I don’t know what the answer is. I really do not know a lot about this subject other than my personal experience with many parents struggling with where to send their children to school in the Richmond area. But I think the issue is more complex than just ‘us vs the evil corporation’ .

      • ritchie cook

        Charter schools in New Orleans, Milwaukee,Detroit, have all been complete failures by all accounts except for the the crooks, I mean billionaire “investors” behind them.

        • Confidential Commenter

          Hi ritchie,
          That may very well be so. But apparently here in Richmond people are loving them and they are succeeding according the Confidential article. Its not my opinion, that’s what the article clearly implies. Personally, I would rather see parents fleeing TO our public schools. But according to the article, the opposite is happening when parents are given the freedom to choose. Those are the facts according to the article, not me. My opinion is only that many people I hear discussing this issue seem to gloss over that small detail. Although I am in no way comparing the cold war with the public schools, and I do prefer a public school system, it does kind of remind me of discussions with people at the time who were trying to explain to me just how wonderful the Soviet Union and certain east European communist regimes were, and who simultaneously insisted upon ignoring the small detail that those regimes had to build a wall armed with machine guns on it to keep everyone from fleeing.
          So in short ritchie, that’s wonderful about Detroit, are people returning to public schools? That would be great.. But why are 200 families fleeing the Richmond public schools each year and choosing charters when given a choice? Whats the problem with the public schools that they are losing families? That’s all I’m saying. Do you know how to reverse that while still allowing people a choice? Or do we simply not allow people a choice any longer? Confidential minds want to know! Ha ha
          Peace

  4. Oswald C

    it’s amusing how stupid voters are, richmond and all around the country. the idea that people would be so upset about limiting spiraling housing and health care costs that they’d not just say “no thanks” but “oh please mighty corporations please buy our politics” shows you just why this country has gone to Hell. You get the gov’t and elections you deserve.

    • Confidential Commenter

      Well speak for yourself Oswald. Hubris can prevent us from understanding as you have so eloquently demonstrated with your post. I suggest you read Jael Myricks excellent post on Tom Butts email forum if you wish to get the point that apparently flew over your head. Good luck.

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