8 percent of Ben Hueso's campaign money has come from industries that might be considered less-than-desirable. Photo by David Rolland.
Drive east along the 905 freeway, past the new planned communities and bone-white business parks and you hit a spot that looks like a third-world country. It's Otay Mesa's junkyard ghetto, home to a larger concentration of auto dismantlers and car-part recyclers than anywhere else in the county, if not the state, where lot upon lot of old cars sit wrapped in tarp-covered chain-link fences.
And, judging from campaign-finance statements, these businesses like Ben Hueso, the District 8 San Diego City Councilmember and current council president, who's running to replace termed-out 79th District Assemblymember Mary Salas. So far, Hueso's received $7,400 in contributions from tenants of Joe Street, whose grandfather's junkyard business was kicked out of downtown San Diego in the 1940s and, later, asked to leave downtown Chula Vista until it ended up—and expanded—at the very edge of San Diego, only about a mile-and-a-half from the Mexico border.
Sixteen of Street's tenants and five Street family members have donated to Hueso's Assembly campaign.
The League of Women Voters website, Smartvoter.org, suggests looking at a candidate's campaign contributions to get a sense of where that candidate stands. In Hueso's case, scattered amid the usual-suspect donations from attorneys, developers and lobbyists are donations from three industries that, perhaps even more than attorneys, developers and lobbyists, might raise a voter's eyebrow. In addition to the auto wreckers and recyclers, Hueso has received money from pawnshops ($8,950) and payday lenders / check cashers ($6,500). Combined, the donations are roughly 8 percent of the $292,230 Hueso has raised so far.
To some extent, these contributions reflect the business make-up of the district Hueso currently represents and the larger area he hopes to represent. Coming from a family with deep South Bay roots, you'll end up with close friends whose businesses are the sort that thrive in that area. Francisco Anzar, owner of the Monte de Piedad pawnshop chain, based in San Ysidro, is a longtime family friend, Hueso said. Anzar and his brother, Omar, donated $6,000 to his campaign.
“He has never called me asking for anything,” Hueso said. “My father was a very, very good friend of his. He is just a very close friend who's always been very supportive.”
Then there's the fact that Hueso's still a councilmember, said political consultant Chris Crotty.
“He could win in June, but he has to serve out his term and he's still going to vote on whatever comes before the council.”
In April 2009, pawnshop owners organized an event for Hueso and posted information about it on the Yahoo message board for the San Diego Pawnbrokers Association.
“Hi folks, there is no question that having friends at high places is crucial and vital to our industry. The looming 36% intrest [sic] cap at the federal level, our three bills at Sacramanto [sic] and a recent letter from the SD Police dept for a possible permit fee raise makes good friends even more important. We are putting together an afternoon together with Mr. Ben Hueso, who is running for State Assembly seat and is a terrific guy who would be willing to listen to our issues at the city and state level. it is important that we have a good showing. suggested donation is $150.00 but the limit is $3900.00.”
The message was posted by Israel Adato, who owns a chain of pawnshops located mostly in the South Bay and who supported Hueso in his bid for City Council in 2006. In a later post, Adato made a link between Hueso's influence and the fact that pawnshops' police-permit fees weren't raised at an April 20, 2009, City Council meeting.
Adato was out of town and unavailable for comment by press time, but Hueso bristled at the suggestion that he had anything to do with the fee decisions.
The fee process “was an independent process of determining what was 100-percent cost recovery,” he said. San Diego's municipal code allows the city to impose fees on police-regulated businesses to cover the actual costs of associated with regulation. Pawnshops, City Council reports show, were already being charged the full costs of regulation while other types of businesses weren't.
In Street's case, because the land he owns isn't zoned for his tenants' type of business, every three years he needs to renew a permit with the city. His permit's currently in the process of being renewed and, he admitted, he wants to make sure he's got his councilmember's attention.
“I've encouraged my tenants to donate to Ben, as I encouraged my tenants to donate to Ralph [Inzunza] when he was there and to Juan Vargas when he was there,” he said.
But, street added, “you can't buy politicians. We're not Chicago. But we need them to at least know who we are, so that's kind of why we've donated to Ben.”
“It's politics as its best,” Crotty said. “It's democracy in action—people looking out for their own interests. What do developers do? What does a law firm do? They have a fundraiser. The candidate comes to the law firm and all the partners, the junior partners, the secretaries write checks for the maximum amount, and here you go…. These guys are doing their version of it.”
That leaves the contributions from payday lenders. Liana Molina, payday campaign organizer with the California Reinvestment Coalition, an organization that advocates for fair-banking practices, said the amount Hueso's received “exceeds the norm” of what CRC's noticed being contributed to other campaigns.
“It's normal that they contribute,” she said, “but this is a little bigger than what we're used to seeing.”
Neither Salas, who's currently running for state Senate, nor Vargas, who represented the 79th District from 2000 through 2006 (and who's running against Salas for the Senate seat) received similar contributions. The payday-lending industry never gave more than $2,000 to Vargas, and Salas' contributions from that industry never surpassed $1,000.
Molina pointed out that the contributions could be tied to an ordinance proposed last year by City Councilmember Todd Gloria that would cap the number of payday lenders and check cashers allowed in an area and regulate signage and hours of operation. Drafting an ordinance has been slow, however. A City Council committee was waiting on a study from the city's Development Services Department, but, as CityBeat reported in February, the department's budget has been cut to the point that it lacks the staff to do such a study.
“My aim is to have this ordinance ready for council consideration this fall,” Gloria said.
Hueso said that because the ordinance hasn't been drafted, he's not yet taken a position on it.
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