If you peruse San Diego's campaign-finance laws—as a cure for insomnia, perhaps—you'll come away with the impression that their intent is to create an environment where people who reach public office get there thanks, in part, to regular folks each donating small amounts of money to their campaigns. The obvious goal of individual contribution limits—$320 for mayor and city attorney candidates, $270 for City Council—is to make it so big-money special interests can't earn greater access to a winning candidate through large monetary contributions. And, in San Diego, organizations are not allowed to give to candidates.
But in the sneaky world of campaign finance, money is like water—it creates its own path to its destination.
One of the ways well-connected insiders get around contribution limits is by fund-raising for their favorite candidates. That means hosting an event where, for example, a candidate will speak to the crowd and mingle with invited guests, who are expected to write individual checks. If they give the checks to the host, and that host hands over a bundle of checks to the candidate, that's known as “bundling.” But donors can also take a remittance envelope home and mail it in individually—in that case, the fund-raiser earns credit for the money by marking the envelope to make sure the candidate knows who's responsible for it.
This is how folks who want something—loosened regulations maybe, or a plum spot on a city advisory commission—endear themselves to elected officials. Why else would they go through all the trouble, if not because they expect to get at least something approximating what they want later on?
Under city law, lobbyists registered with the city must file reports notifying the public that they have done fund-raising for specific elected officials. That's how we know, for example, that Donna Jones, a registered lobbyist for Sheppard Mullin—a prominent law firm that counts among its clients some of the region's largest developers—has done some fund-raising for Mayor Jerry Sanders. A quick check of campaign-finance disclosures this week by CityBeat's Eric Wolff revealed that Sanders has received donations from at least 39 people associated with Sheppard Mullin or its various clients, and they've generally given the maximum amount, so if these checks are the result of fund-raising, Sheppard Mullin could be receiving credit in the Sanders camp for some $12,000—and counting. (Lobbyists must file regular reports saying how much they've raised for specific candidates, but the first of those reports haven't yet been filed.)
When the San Diego Ethics Commission was mulling these recently enacted fund-raising rules, some lobbyists complained that they were being singled out—anyone else holding fund-raisers doesn't have to report anything, they griped.
Good point. That's why the Ethics Commission is considering requiring candidates to report having received money collected through fund-raising. We wholeheartedly support such a requirement. It would allow journalists and members of the public to see who's donating to a candidate's campaign and who's taking credit for raising relatively large sums of money for that campaign without having to check both the candidates' disclosures and the lobbyists' disclosures, and it would cast a wider net that includes non-lobbyist fund-raisers.
We've lamented repeatedly in this space that private money over and over again gets in the way of good public policy at every level of government, and we've registered numerous times our wish that such money could be eliminated from elections altogether. The problem is, contributing to political campaigns falls under the umbrella of free speech. So, we're left only with the ability to crack down along the margins—which can lead to unintended consequences, such as the rise of so-called 527 groups, which, in 2004, led to the “swiftboating” of John Kerry—or focus instead on making the exchange of money as transparent as possible, so that the public knows who's expecting favorable policy from elected officials.
It must be noted that nothing in this discussion touches on yet another way campaign donors skirt contribution limits. They can also donate so-called “soft” money—large contributions to the county Democratic and Republican parties, which, in turn, conduct what's known as “member communications.” Such communications include mailers urging people to vote for certain candidates. It's a practice that's permitted under state law. The state Legislature, in fact, has strengthened that position, passing a law that forbids local governments from restricting member communications. Before that law passed, the San Diego Ethics Commission sought advice from the state Fair Political Practices Commission on regulating such communications.
The city of Los Angeles has imposed restrictions on member communications and is arguing that, as a charter city, it's not bound by the recent state law. San Diego, too, is a charter city. We encourage the local Ethics Commission to follow L.A.'s lead.
We're all about free speech, but there's a competing interest here—and that's having a democratic system that works equally for everyone.
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