“Everybody has a right to expect that their representatives are going to be responsive to them, not to whoever can shuffle the most cash into their campaigns. The amount of money in campaigns is obscene”.
Ross Johnson, Chairman California Fair Political Practices Commission (LA Times, April 26, 2010)
By the time you read this, your mailbox has been filled every day for the past two weeks with fancy campaign mailers that promote a candidate(s) or selected slate of candidates. Likewise, your telephone or doorbell rings incessantly in evenings with live callers.
Outside Money Takes Over
Most of these political ads have something in common; they came from Political Action Committees (PACS). Raised from special interests with no contribution limits, the $689,000 PACs have available for this election makes a mockery of the individual campaign contribution limit of $325 imposed on candidates committees.
Total contributions to individual candidates equal approximately $266,000.
Including the undisclosed contributions of CEPS, and likely further PAC contributions, the 2012 election for Santa Monica City Council will reach almost $1,000,000.
Past as Prologue
For the past three decades Santa Monicans for Renters Rights (SMRR) has led the PACS in both money and its accompanying influence. SMRR raised over $120,000 and spent only $10,000 so far on mailers in support of incumbents Gleam Davis and Terry O’Day, and candidates Shari Davis and Ted Winterer. Because of their record of electing their supporters to city council, candidates sought their support. They aggressively deploy email, precinct walkers and banks of phone callers.
For over 30 years SMRR has mobilized renters, 70% of total residents, to vote “their” slate of candidates with great success – five of the seven current city council members won with SMRR’s support.
New Developer Leader of the PACS
2012 brings a new leader of the PACS, Santa Monicans United for a Responsible Future (SMURF), with a war chest of almost $441,000, all from developers with proposed projects. As of October 27, they spent over $355,000 supporting three pro development candidates, Gleam Davis, Terry O’Day and Shari Davis with mailers, walkers and phone banks. Ted Winterer, who provides protection against blanket accusations of developer bias because of his record of protecting residents against such developerments on the Planning Commission, was included in their efforts with the least expenditures. SMURF money alone is almost double the $266,336 total raised by all city council candidates combined.
Local Special Interest PACS
The Police Officers PAC and Firefighters PAC spent about $31,000 and $6,000 respectively in support of candidates Gleam Davis, Shari Davis, Terry O’Day and Ted Winterer, with three mailers and phone banks. All the candidates sought their endorsement. Santa Monica police and fire departments are competitively paid compared to other groups in Southern California. Most people are pleased with their response and service and want to see them well paid, although pension funding overhangs city budgets.
Community for Excellent Public Schools (CEPS), an advocacy group for school funding, has filed no required campaign disclosure reports in spite of funding at least three mailers in support of Shari Davis, Gleam Davis, Terry O’Day and Ted Winterer. They say that they will be turning in late reports just before the election.
SMRR, discussed above, also qualifies as a local special interest PAC because it claims to represent renters, not residents as a whole and promotes a pro-renter agenda. In recent years, SMRR’s board also has promoted council candidates who are very pro-development as well, even over the refusal of its own membership to endorse those candidates for election or re-election to the council.
Santa Monicans for Responsible Growth (SMRG), a new resident PAC in 2012, raised over $52,000 and has spent $16,000 on three mailers in support of Ted Winterer and Richard McKinnon, Planning Commissioners with records of voting against large projects that negatively impact our community. SMRG also vetted the candidates extensively through a questionnaire and interview process.
Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City (SMCLC PAC), a grassroots group of residents against overdevelopment and traffic and for greater transparency in elections, who successfully reduced the size and scale of Santa Monica Place in 2006, raised about $9800 and spent $8500 on a mailer and flyers in support of Planning Commissioners Ted Winterer and Richard McKinnon’s run for city council. SMCLC also sent out email blasts to voters and supporters.
All This PAC Spending Makes a Difference
Although coordination of expenditures between candidates and PACS is forbidden, the fact that PAC funding can dwarf individual candidates' funding and generate their own agenda and message puts pressure on the candidates to raise enough cash themselves in order to support their own campaigns usually in the form of emails, mailers and walkers. Candidates who need name recognition also may feel they have little choice but to court endorsements from local PACS, like SMRR that have shown their ability to reach voters and affect election outcomes. Candidates seek their endorsements and the related advertising and workers that follow.
Then there are the independent “pop up” PACS that no candidate seeks endorsement or help from, like SMURF; candidates have no power to stop their support or opposition. These PACS can change election outcomes with big money and the accompanying communication power money buys. The evening news reports almost daily of the doings of the Republican and Democratic Party affiliated PACS in their quest to win national elections.
In Santa Monica, developer-funded Santa Monicans United for a Responsible Future (SMURF) chose candidates without their knowledge or consent, whom they think best serve their narrow special interests. SMURF is using the astronomical contributions by outside real estate developers to dominate the political messaging that often wins elections. Not surprisingly, all these developers have projects waiting in the wings to be approved by the next city council.
Like the national elections, the outcome is up to individual voters -- to follow the money and carefully assess what it means.