Isn’t $250,000 Enough?
By John Earl
OC Voice Editor
As a candidate for governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger proclaimed “I don’t need to take any [campaign contribution] money from anybody else; I have plenty of money myself.”
And he warned that, “Any of those kinds of real, big, powerful special interests, if you take money from them, you owe them something.”
Five years later, Governor Schwarzenegger has collected over $124 million in campaign contributions from special interest groups, the largest chunk, over $20 million, coming from real estate, development and construction concerns, according to ArnoldWatch.org. And critics say he has served the needs of corporations over the needs of the people.
While cynics, who lament the loss of “one person one vote” to “one dollar one vote,” created by corporate donors and PACS, and call for public financing of campaigns as a solution, Huntington Beach Councilmember Don Hansen and some of his colleague’s think they have a better idea: allow unlimited individual campaign contributions to city council candidates.
Last August, Hansen proposed increasing the current $300 limit to $500 retroactively, but removed the latter when skeptics objected that past limit violations could be covered up. A subcommittee was then formed to study the overall issue of campaign regulation reform and to make recommendations to the city council at a later date, which it did at a March 17 study session.
Hansen chaired the committee and councilmembers Cathy Green and Jill Hardy joined him along with several H.B. residents. The committee met 5 times and reviewed campaign regulations for 7 other Orange County cities and the State.
Two main issues remain unsettled: spending limits and whether to redact personal address information from electronic (Internet) filings of candidates’ financial contribution updates.
How Much Money is Enough?
Several proposals for campaign contributions are on the table: keep the current $300 individual limit, raise it to $420, or to the approximate $3,000 limit, linked to the Consumer Price Index, that applies to state wide political races or remove all limits.
Hansen criticized “third party independent money” that he said “has completely taken over the process,” but his voice trembled with resentment toward labor unions, “who rely on votes of this council to get their pay raises,” although he received an endorsement and a $300 contribution from the city’s police union in the 2004 election.
Speaking from direct experience, Hansen complained that, “It’s hard to come back when you are hamstrung with a $300 limit and the other side can spend hundreds of thousands of dollars unrestrained.”
But Mayor Pro-tem Keith Bohr doesn’t feel so hamstrung and wants to keep the $300 limit. Mayor Debbie Cook said she preferred a $100 limit.
“I stand unconvinced,” Bohr said, pointing out that $250,000, not including self-loans, was raised by 6 current council members in the past two city council elections (2004 and 2006). The lowest amount raised by a candidate was $17,000, the highest $49,000 (Councilmember Cathy Green), for a $36,000 average, he claimed.
“For a local non-partisan race, I think there is plenty of money there,” he said. “I don’t think anybody here is going to be influenced by a couple of $300 checks, but…for a couple of $3,000 checks they can have a lot of influence.”
Councilmember Green doubted that many contributors would increase their check amounts even if allowed to. “I can’t imagine anybody giving $3,000 to a lot of people…If you look at ours, there is less than 100 $300 checks anyhow” going to city council candidates.
Green’s own campaign report for just one 6 month period from July through December in the 2006 city council election shows that 55 percent of a total of 106 contributions received were for $300, for a total of $18,600. That amount accounts for 36 percent of a total of $49,532 raised by her campaign to that date.
The importance of even multiple smaller contributions seems clear from Green’s own report, but if those contributions come in amounts of $3,000 or larger, the effect is even more pronounced.
Green, who voted for the Poseidon Inc. desalination plant approved for construction next to the AES electrical power plant in southeast Huntington Beach, received 16 real estate industry related contributions of $300 from July through December 2006 alone for a total of $4,500.
One of her contributors was a real estate PAC associated with the California Association of Realtors that also gave over $83,000 to state senators, usually in chunks of $3,000 but two at over $5,000 and one at $10,000, to support Senate Bill 318 that requires an Urban Water Management Plan to promote desalinated water as a long-term water supply. Tens of thousands of dollars were also contributed from other real estate sources to state senators who voted on the bill, which became law in 2002. In 2003 the passage of Proposition 34 implemented a $3,000 limit, adjusted to the Consumer Price Index, for state legislative campaigns.
During the short time from Oct. 17, 2004 through the end of Dec. 2004, Hansen received 11 contributions of $300 each from real estate interests, including 2 PACS, for a total of $3,300. Another $600 came from a local auto dealer and an Orange County auto dealer PAC. Poseidon Inc. executives contributed $700 to Hansen during the same period. On other occasions Hansen received money from the H.B. Fire Fighters Association and a PAC for mobile home park owners.
Under Hansen’s proposal for no monetary limits, Green and other council members might have collected tens of thousands of dollars more from powerful real estate interests, an amount that local environmentalists could probably never hope to counter balance.
But Green remains unconcerned. “I don’t care about the amount of the money as long as we’re consistent,” she said.
Hardy favored an increase to a $420 limit as a compromise related to increased postal costs. Councilmember Joe Carchio agreed with Hansen and Councilmember Gil Coerper leaned in favor of no limits
Outside Special Interests
During public comments, H.B. resident Larry Gallup objected to city council candidates receiving money from outside the city. Again, Green was unconcerned. “Generally it’s not from outside of the city. A lot of times it’s from our parents and brothers and sisters and friends. So, I’m not going to get rid of that,” she said.
But 45 percent of Green’s 106 contributions for the 6 month period were from outside of the city, including Utah, Connecticut and D.C. and 64 percent of the $300 contributions she received were from outsiders. Only one, a “Green” listed on Florida Street looked like a possible relative.
Outside donors were a big issue for opponents of Measure E, which was soundly defeated in 2004. Measure E was the brainstorm of Orange County Republican Party operative Scott Baugh, backed by Congressman Dana Rohrabacher, to rid the council of “environmental extremists,” as he put it to the Los Angeles Times at the time.
Measure E would have eliminated the city’s at-large elections for city council by cutting the number of council members to five, each representing a separate district. Hansen, who lives in southeast Huntington Beach, would have been a shoe-in city council candidate for the district planned for that area.
The Times reported that 25 percent of the $143,000 raised by Measure E proponents came from outside of the city, with huge donations of up to $10,000 coming Baugh’s business clients or friends.
But the largest cash contributions came from the Huntington Beach Police Officers Association, which gave $30,000 for “public safety,” and the AES Corp, which runs the antiquated electrical generating plant at Newland and Pacific Coast Highway, and whose owners were upset over failed city council attempts to force the company to pay property taxes on the facility.
But Measure E opponents, who raised only about $30,000 but created a broad-based grass-roots coalition, prevailed by a landslide with over 63 percent of the vote.
Hit Pieces and Stalkers
The study committee also took up the issue of how to handle political hit pieces traditionally sent out just before election day. Current rules require anybody passing out such fliers to leave ten copies of each with the city clerk. Councilmember Jill Hardy favored reducing the number of copies to 1 and otherwise keeping the requirement.
One such hit piece sent out by mobile home park owners in the 2006 election endorsed candidates Green and councilmembers Joe Carchio and Gil Coerper as protectors against a city council that had tried to take away the property rights of Main Street residents. The leader of the group that produced the filer was Vicky Tally, a mobile home park owner who sued over a city ordinance that protects the rights of mobile home park residents.
Finally, fear of dangerous stalkers persuaded all councilmembers except Hansen to redact the personal information of campaign reports made available to the public online. “I’ve been to meetings where somebody put bullets on the table,” Cook asserted, “I think that kooks should have to jump through extra hoops by coming to city hall.”
But Hansen favored full disclosure as did H.B. activist and computer technician Mark Bixby, who needs the addresses for “geo-spatial analysis” of campaign contributors. He pointed out that he already provides unredacted electronic campaign reports online to over 150 people. He added that the city clerk can’t ask for I.D. from people requesting the documents in person and that it would be easier to track a stalker from the Internet.
The city attorney will prepare a report on all the options discussed by the committee and bring it back to the city council for a vote by the city council at a future meeting.