Oct. 30 2013 08:27 AM

A look at the activities of the big-money independent-expenditure committees

From left: David Alvarez, Kevin Faulconer and Nathan Fletcher
Photo by David Rolland

By the time San Diego elects a new mayor, likely early next year, super PAC spending in the race could surpass what was spent in last year's mayoral election.

According to the San Diego Ethics Commission, independent-expenditure committees—colloquially known as super PACs—opposing or supporting mayoral candidates Bob Filner and Carl DeMaio spent $4.7 million between Jan. 1, 2011, and Nov. 5, 2012. By comparison, independent committees formed to support or oppose candidates vying to replace Filner—David Alvarez, Kevin Faulconer and Nathan Fletcher—have spent close to $1.5 million in the last month alone.

Just as super PACs are a relatively new thing in federal elections, so, too, are they in local elections. A 2010 ruling stemming from a lawsuit brought by a Republican candidate for San Diego City Council, the local GOP and a conservative business group eliminated caps on the amount of money independent-expenditure (IE) committees can receive from corporations, unions and other "non-individual entities." The committees, however, must operate independently of the candidate. That means an IE committee can go after a preferred candidate's opponent, allowing the preferred candidate to keep a safe distance from the muck.

"People don't like negative political messages, but they believe them. They don't like the purveyor of negative mail, either," political consultant Chris Crotty says.

"Independent committees are becoming the samurai hit man of our political campaigns," says Carl Luna, professor of political science at San Diego Mesa College. "What I'd like to see are candidates actively disavowing and publicly repudiating groups running negative personal attacks on their opponents on their behalf. But then, that would mean the politicians would actually have to mean it when they say they want to be above mudslinging."

CityBeat took a look at what independent-expenditure committees have spent and received, according to disclosures filed with the San Diego City Clerk through Oct. 28. The disclosures require a committee to say whether money's been spent to support or oppose a candidate, and we've made note of that here, too:

Working Families for a Better San Diego
Sponsored by: San Diego and Imperial Counties Labor Council
Largest contributor: American Federation of State and County Municipal Employees ($535,000)
Received: $1,062,622
Spent: $537,160
Supports: David Alvarez

Aside from a $50,000 contribution from one Chula Vista man, this committee's money has come entirely from labor unions, with the American Federation of State and County Municipal Employees (AFSCME) contributing the most and the United Food and Commercial Workers Union second with $225,000.

While the source of donations might be similar, the way the money's being spent—all of it going to support Alvarez—is quite different than the IEs supporting Faulconer and Fletcher, which are almost solely using mailers to get the candidate's name out there or to attack an opponent. Almost half of Working Families' spending has gone toward its field program, which hires temporary workers, many of them union members, to staff phone banks and/or go door-to-door to talk up the candidate.

"There's absolutely no substitute for actually talking to voters directly and being able to listen to voters," says Richard Barrera, who heads the Labor Council. "Just by sending people mail—it's, like, you can inundate people with that and hope that some sort of message penetrates, but… you've got to be willing to have conversations with people."

The committee also started spending on TV commercials earlier in the race than any other committee.

"It was very important that we quickly let people, especially north of [Interstate] 8 know about David. We knew that his name recognition was low when the campaign started, so it was very important to let people know about his background, about his track record. We started making contact with voters probably earlier than you would typically do in a campaign."

CityBeat reached out to representatives of the major IE committees, and Barrera was the only one who responded.

This committee reported its estimated spending at $529,150 as of Oct. 28. In totaling up disclosures, CityBeat got a slightly higher number. The committee didn't respond to questions about the discrepancy by press time.

American Federation of Teachers Guild, Local 1931
Received: Membership dues
Spent: $22,319.05
Supports: David Alvarez 

While most of this committee's spending has been on phone banking in support of Alvarez (a little more than $10,000), it's spent close to $5,000 on mailers opposing Nathan Fletcher, taking issue with Fletcher's switch from Republican to independent to Democrat. The union spent money on anti-Fletcher mailers in the 2012 mayoral primary, as well, and then targeted DeMaio in the general election. Jim Mahler, president of Local 1931, has made it clear he's no fan of Fletcher. In September, he published an open letter to state Assemblymember Lorena Gonzalez, the former head of the San Diego and Imperial Counties Labor Council, after Gonzalez endorsed Fletcher, accusing her of hatching a "Machiavellian" scheme to oust Filner and get Fletcher elected.

Here are the other committees supporting Alvarez:

Environmental Health and Justice Campaign Fund Working to Elect David Alvarez for Mayor 2013 
Largest donor: M. Quinn Delaney ($7,500), president of the Akonadi Foundation, an Oakland-based organization focused on racial-justice 
Received: $8,500 
Spent: $1,089.84 (on canvassing and phone-banking)

The original version of this story said the Environmental Health and Justice Campaign Fund was sponsored by the Environmental Health Coalition; it's not. It also said the committee had received $27,000 in contributions. That was also incorrect. We apologize for the error and have corrected the information

Orange County Dignity PAC

Sponsored by: Orange County Federation of Labor
Spent: $11,802.77 (on phone-banking and field workers) 

A breakdown of how much money independent-expenditure committees have spent on each candidate and how they've spent it
Image by Lindsey Voltoline

The Lincoln Club of San Diego County
Received: Membership dues
Spent: $287,717
Supports: Kevin Faulconer 

As the only Republican in the race, Faulconer has the support of the Lincoln Club, a conservative, pro-business group whose membership roster is a who's who of lobbyists, developers, Republican-backed elected officials and high-profile business owners. Members' annual dues are used on political spending with the approval of the executive board, says Lincoln Club spokesperson Erica Holloway.

The Lincoln Club's known for its slick, larger-than-normal attack mailers that often hit a voter's mailbox twice or three times in a week. In this campaign, the Lincoln Club's made Fletcher its sole target; one mailer even promoted Alvarez, after polling suggested that he'd be easier for Faulconer to beat in a runoff. Of the nearly $290,000 the group's spent on this election, almost $265,000 has paid for anti-Fletcher mailers.

So, do negative mailers work? It's an area that's not been studied much by political scientists; Holloway declined to comment on why the Lincoln Club maintains this tack. A recent study by political science professors David Doherty, from Loyola University Chicago, and Scott Adler, from University of Colorado, Boulder, took a look at the impact of campaign mailers. The effect of mailers is short-lived, they found, and, says Doherty in an email to CityBeat, "we don't find anything that suggests that sending negative messages is particularly effective."

But what about a drumbeat of negative mailers?

"I think the answer to this is ‘yes,'" Doherty says. 
"The more messages one sends the more likely it is that the targeted voter will actually see the message. Also, given how short-lived these effects tend to be, it is quite likely that repetition (preferably right up to Election Day) is important."

San Diegans to Protect Jobs and the Economy

Largest contributor: San Diego Restaurant and Beverage PAC ($60,000)
Received: $215,750
Spent: $147,468
Supports: Kevin Faulconer

If labor unions are driving IE committees supporting Alvarez, business interests are backing Faulconer. Like with Working Families, only one individual has contributed to this committee—in this case, former Port Commissioner Steve Cushman ($10,000). Other contributors include the Building Industry Association, San Diego County Hotel Motel Association, San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce and the San Diego Jobs PAC, the Downtown San Diego Partnership's political-action committee.

And, while the Lincoln Club's doing the dirty work, San Diegans to Protect Jobs and the Economy has sent out only pro-Faulconer mailers, touting the candidate's plan to fix streets and sidewalks and keep jobs in San Diego.

Restoring Trust in San Diego
Largest donor: Joan and Irwin Jacobs ($75,000 combined)
Received: $303,000
Spent: $145,979.85
Supports: Nathan Fletcher

In September, U-T San Diego reporter Craig Gustafson got his hands on a memo from political consultant Matt David saying that this IE committee supporting Fletcher aimed to spend $3.6 million. (David didn't respond to CityBeat's request for an interview.)

Early on, the committee was lagging, having raised only $57,500 as of Oct. 3. But, in the last two weeks, it's seen a surge in contributions and, as of Oct. 25, had raised a total of $303,000. The list of contributors include blue-collar labor unions like the Teamsters, Plumbers & Pipefitters and the United Association of Journeymen and Apprentices— likely spurred by Fletcher's recent op-ed in favor of a citywide prevailing-wage law—and large businesses (Ace Parking, Bridgepoint Education, tempworkforce giant Manpower).

A lag in fundraising meant a lag in spending and, even then, the committee was deliberate, spending $51,500 for polling and consulting, according to disclosure reports, prior to sending out its first mailer last week. That first mailer took swipes at Faulconer and Alvarez, blaming them for being sources of partisan gridlock at city hall.

Here are the other committees supporting Fletcher:

San Diego City Fire Fighters Local 145
Spent: $80,100 (direct mail)

San Diego Municipal Employees Association
Spent: $42,541 (direct mail)

San Diego Police Officers Association
Spent: $37,989 (direct mail)

Neighborhoods for Nathan Fletcher for Mayor
Sponsor: Neighborhood Market Association
Spent: $21,425 (direct mail)

And here's one more independent-expenditure committee:

Zombies for Responsible Government Opposing Nathan Fletcher for Mayor
Spent: $7,400

Formed late last week, the committee, whose treasurer is Sacramento political consultant David Bauer, and whose only reported contribution so far is from an Orange County attorney, released two YouTube videos this week featuring, yes, zombies.

Email kellyd@sdcitybeat.com or follow her on Twitter at @citybeatkelly.


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