Realtors Spend Big On Costa Campaign

*$270,000 investment in congressional race buys television, radio ads.

By Michael Doyle, Bee Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- Some deep pockets are opening up for the increasingly contentious San Joaquin Valley congressional race, with a Realtors group contributing more than $270,000 to Democratic candidate Jim Costa's campaign.

The National Association of Realtors has spent the money on television and radio ads, publicly available records show. A longtime legislative ally of the Realtors, Costa is competing against fellow Democrat Lisa Quigley in the 20th Congressional District.

"We're certainly doing our best to see Senator Costa wins," Steve Cook, vice president of the National Association of Realtors, said Tuesday.

The Realtors' radio ad began running on Fresno and Bakersfield stations Thursday, and the television ad will begin next week. Direct mail pieces also will be sent, and Cook said the organization will rally the Valley's individual Realtors with pro-Costa messages.

The Realtors' independent expenditure, so-called because it was made without being explicitly coordinated with the Costa camp, is an unusually large one for the region and throws a new wrinkle into the March 2 Democratic primary.

"We were advised a couple of days ago that they were going to do something, but weren't told details," Bob Sanders, a spokesman for the Costa campaign, said Tuesday when told of the Realtors' efforts. "We're pleased that people are supporting the campaign."

Quigley, though, characterized the spending as the kind of special-interest maneuvering that she's sought to associate with her opponent. Quigley's research team unearthed the latest spending numbers, which are publicly available through individual television and radio stations, and she called them to the attention of The Bee. A spot check confirmed their accuracy.

"One special interest is trying to buy a member of Congress," Quigley said. "This amount of money is so immense, it exceeds his entire media budget. In a market like this, it's just extraordinary."

This isn't the first time independent expenditures have colored local congressional races. Two years ago, for instance, a conservative Washington-based interest group called the Club for Growth ran a controversial 15-second ad supporting the congressional bid of former Fresno Mayor Jim Patterson. Likewise, the Washington-based Hispanic Business Roundtable ran ads in 2000 attacking Fresno-area Democrat Cal Dooley.

But in simple dollar terms, the Realtors' latest spending marks an extraordinary infusion into a race where the candidates so far appear to be roughly neck and neck. A former state senator, Costa reported raising $333,075 last year. Quigley, formerly chief of staff to Dooley, reported raising $329,294.

Funded through the National Association of Realtors' Political Action Committee, the local Realtors' spending totaled $270,760 for time on eight television stations and nine radio stations. This does not count additional money being spent on mailers. Cook described the spending as "moderate" compared with other campaigns by the Realtors' PAC, which is one of the nation's largest.

Costa's relationship with the real estate industry dates back to his years in the state Legislature. There, he carried controversial legislation to weaken rent control laws in cities such as Berkeley and Santa Monica. The legislation, which became law in 1996, eventually allowed landlords to set rates at whatever the market will bear once a tenant vacates a unit.

The bill represented "an 11-year effort to try to end extreme forms of rent control in California," Costa said at the time. He further contended that strict rent control curtailed construction of new rental housing because owners no longer consider it a profitable investment. More generally, Cook said Costa was always a strong supporter of the real estate industry while in the state Senate.

"I called the Realtors early in the campaign ... and they told me that Costa had always done everything they ever asked, so they didn't need to meet with me because they were going to be with him," Quigley said.

"I didn't know at the time what that really meant, but boy, they were serious."


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