An incendiary mailer landed in the mailboxes of City Council District 3 voters in the final weekend of a hard-fought campaign between Stephen Whitburn and Todd Gloria. The mailer showed a red devil-like hand clasping a man's hand and went on to say that that Whitburn had been bought by developers who were backing his campaign. The mailer enraged Whitburn's backers, who said it misrepresented the occupations of some of Whitburn's contributors, several of whom are well-known community activists. Gloria, who prevailed in Tuesday's election, told CityBeat that he had no knowledge of the mailer prior to its release, and his consultant, Jennifer Tierney, and his campaign manager, Jamie Fox Rice, said the same thing.
Sources now tell CityBeat that Fox Rice's husband, Colin Rice, was a key figure in raising money for the mailer. The mailer, which included a slate of local issues in addition to opposing Whitburn, said it had been paid for by the San Diego Voter Education Project, an organization that state records show had only recently been formed. One of the contributors, developer Thomas Sudberry, said he believes it was Rice who called him to ask about backing a mailer that urged voters to reject Proposition B and support Proposition C. State records show Sudberry contributed $1,000.
Rice also spoke to consultant Scott Barnett, who was working for the Proposition S school-facilities-bond campaign, about making a contribution. Barnett said he called Rice on the advice of an acquaintance who told him Rice was putting together a slate mailer. He and Rice exchanged voicemails, during which, Barnett said, the two agreed on a contribution of $400 to get Prop. S on the mailer. Prop. S later had to withdraw its contribution because the campaign believed, erroneously, that the mailer was an independent expenditure, a highly regulated form of campaign donation.
Rice, a registered lobbyist with the city and a consultant who works with affordable-housing developers, says his involvement on the mailer was limited. He said he did speak to Sudberry about the contribution, and that he spoke to Barnett, but that he forwarded Barnett to the Voter Education Project's treasurer, Paola Avila.
'We did not negotiate anything,' Rice said. 'Mostly people would come up to me at events and say they'd already given their $270 to the campaign, and what else they could do. I would send them to Paola.'
Rice also said he never spoke about the mailer to his wife, Jamie Fox Rice, nor to Gloria.
'I never spoke to Todd or the campaign about this,' he said. 'That would be against the law.' When asked on election night about Rice's role in the Voter Education Project, Gloria said he didn't know if Rice had a role and repeated his earlier assertion that the content of the mailer was not consistent with the tone of his campaign. He called the brouhaha a 'distraction' from the real issues, such as the city's $43-million current-year budget deficit.
Rice said he held three fundraisers for Gloria and may have been Gloria's biggest fundraiser in the primary and the general election.
Another key player, Nicole Murray Ramirez, and activist for the gay and lesbian community, told CityBeat early in the reporting for this story that he'd received a call from someone named Colin to help raise money for a pro-Gloria mailer. But in a later phone call, Ramirez changed his story, saying that when he called Avila's office, it was someone named Colin who answered the phone. Ramirez said he did some fund-raising for a set of Voter Education Project mailers but that he didn't know the details of the 'devil' mailer until after it was released.
The reason the Prop. S backers dropped out of the mailer, and the reason Rice says he so carefully avoided mention of the mailer to his wife and Gloria, is that they all believed it was funded as what's known as an independent expenditure. But the San Diego Voter Education Project is actually a slate-mailer organization, a totally different entity that is left out of many campaign-finance laws. The California Fair Political Practices Commission's documents on slate mailers say a slate-mailer organization cannot be 'a committee primarily formed to support or oppose a candidate or measure.' Also, they must be paid no less than $500 by someone—anyone—to produce a mass mailing that advocates a position on at least four propositions or candidates. There are no limits on how much someone can give to produce such a mailer, although all contributions above $100 must be disclosed. Also, unlike an independent expenditure, a campaign could, in theory, coordinate on producing a slate mail.
Slate mailers are regulated by the state, but San Diego Ethics Commission Executive Director Stacey Fulhorst says she has received complaints from each of the last two election cycles about abuse of these mailers. She considers the slate mailer loophole one of the biggest challenges facing campaign finance regulators today.
David Rolland contributed to the reporting of this story. Reporting began prior to the election, but CityBeat, which endorsed Gloria, was unable to confirm Rice's involvement until Thursday, Nov. 6.