Supervisors Eye Ways to Curb PACs

By Peter Felsenfeld, Contra Costa Times

Like engineers trying to dam a tenacious river, Contra Costa leaders are toiling to stem the seemingly inevitable flow of money into local elections.

Ironically, their answer may be to ease or end their own campaign finance limits. A decade-old Contra Costa law curbing political campaign donations and spending sure hasn't worked.

Last year's supervisorial races demonstrated that the cash continues to cascade, manifesting itself in a barrage of fliers, lawn signs and television commercials.

Rather than choke the flood, the voluntary spending limits that most supervisorial candidates agree to have spurred ever-more-aggressive political action committees not governed by the restrictions.

Some observers worry the committees are running amok, producing attack ads and promo pieces that the candidates can't control.

Deep-pocketed developers, unions, refineries and, most recently, an ambulance company are increasingly framing issues and shaping candidates' images. This holds true even though state law forbids the groups from collaborating with candidates' campaigns.

"The money has to go somewhere, so it finds its way to committees that will run nasty ads and become the unfettered and unregulated spokesperson for each side," said Kathay Feng, executive director of California Common Cause. The nonprofit group tracks campaign donations and lobbies for reform.

Frustrated by the trend, Contra Costa supervisors this week will consider changing the county's campaign finance laws.

A proposed reform package includes suggestions to increase candidate spending limits, to eliminate them altogether and to tighten reporting requirements for the so-called independent expenditure committees.

"The main purpose is to give candidates more power and flexibility to control the destiny of their own campaigns," said Supervisor John Gioia of Richmond, who helped draft the reforms.

Contra Costa joins a group of local governments statewide searching for ways to promote competitive elections and reduce the clout of special interests. Some cities, including Oakland and Los Angeles, have approved spending limits coupled with some level of taxpayer-sponsored campaigns.

Generally, public financing has helped newcomers enter races and decreased candidates' dependence on raising money, said Bob Stern, director of the Center for Government Studies in Los Angeles. However, he said, the reforms haven't deterred independent groups from flexing their muscles in tight elections.

"There can be a lot at stake," he said. "There's nothing you can do to keep them (the committees) from getting involved."

New rules

Alarmed by the escalating cost of campaigns, Contra Costa supervisors in 1995 approved spending and contribution limits for supervisorial candidates. They also established maximum dollar contributions to candidates for other county elected offices, such as the sheriff, treasurer-tax collector and assessor.

It soon became obvious that independent committees, which the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled can spend without limits, would fill the cash vacuum, said Supervisor Mark DeSaulnier, a board member at the time.

"As long as you can't regulate them (the committees), you can't get to a point where there's meaningful reform," DeSaulnier said.

The 2000 East County supervisorial race evolved into a cash and mailer war between major refineries, who successfully supported Federal Glover of Pittsburg, and the union backers of Mary Rocha, a former Antioch mayor.

Developers, refineries and unions shelled out more than $200,000 last year to propel Supervisor Mary Nejedly Piepho of Discovery Bay to victory. Those groups eclipsed the unions that spent about $100,000 on behalf of her opponent, Millie Greenberg.

In both cases, the committees spent more than the candidates. Supervisors say they hope the new rules may shift the balance of power.

One version would lift the supervisorial candidate spending ceiling from $95,800 per election cycle to $150,000 per cycle. Candidates who accept the limit would be able to accept individual contributions of $1,000, up from the current $750.

In addition, candidates would have their cap increased by $100,000 if an independent committee spends $30,000 to defeat them. Currently, a candidate's limit goes up by a corresponding amount when a committee reports spending against them.

That system opens the door for groups to disclose their activities at the last minute or even after the election, leaving candidates no time to respond, Gioia said.

"Candidates should have an early warning system that committees are on their way to spending a lot of money."

Another version would dispense with the caps completely.

Some longtime East Bay political observers are skeptical the board can achieve its desired ends. Independent committees have become part of Contra Costa's political landscape, said Leslie Stewart, former president of the League of Women Voters of Diablo Valley.

"I'm not sure you can offset that by changes in a county ordinance."

Public financing

Experience has shown that spending limits generally have little effect unless they're linked with publicly financed campaigns, said Stern of the Center for Government Studies. Taxpayers in several cities and counties nationwide fund a portion of a political candidate's expenses, often through matching grants once an individual has raised enough money to demonstrate his or her viability.

"Spending limits are flawed by nature without public financing," Stern said.

Contra Costa's reforms don't include such a mechanism, though DeSaulnier said he plans to raise the issue during the board discussion.

Campaign scandals and a dearth of competitive races prompted Los Angeles leaders in 1990 to set spending limits and partially subsidize campaigns. The moves haven't slowed independent committees, though they have helped unknown candidates mount a fight, said LeeAnn Pelham, executive director of the city's political Ethics Commission.

"Anybody who says you can come up with a perfect system just isn't being honest," she said.

Oakland in 2001 established a dollar-for-dollar match for city council candidates up to 15 percent of the spending cap, which ranges from $97,000 to $111,000, depending on the council district.

Perhaps because of the match, nine candidates vied for an open seat in a special election this year, said Mark Morodomi, a supervising city attorney who advises the Ethics Commission. Independent expenditures nevertheless remain an active part of city politics.

Peter Felsenfeld covers Contra Costa County. Reach him at 925-977-8506 or

See the article on Contra Costa Times website

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