Council blasts campaign finance reform proposal

Council blasts campaign finance reform proposal

Michele Ellson

Members of Alameda’s City Council offered stiff opposition to Councilman Doug deHaan’s request they consider a campaign finance reform ordinance Tuesday night, saying it would make the council accessible only to the wealthy and would strip working families of their political power.

“I’m troubled by your effort to use corporate deception and to silence the efforts of working families, and to target the unions in particular,” Councilwoman Lena Tam said. “It is not appropriate to turn this council into an elitist, 1 percent group that can self-fund their campaigns.”

Mayor Marie Gilmore said she was concerned the proposed ordinance, which was drafted by former City Attorney Teresa Highsmith in 2010 and forwarded to the city’s Sunshine Task Force for revisions at the council’s behest, would make it harder for less well-heeled candidates to compete with others who can pump a lot of their own money into their campaigns. And she said the enhanced disclosure rules and fines for not following them that are listed in the proposed ordinance would force candidates to hire professionals to manage their disclosure forms because the family members and friends who have handled those duties for some candidates would no longer be willing to do so.

Both she and Vice Mayor Rob Bonta, who is running for a state Assembly seat, defended unions’ right to contribute unlimited amounts of money to local political campaigns. Gilmore later said working families in unions and outside of them elected her to office, while Bonta called unions an important counterweight to corporate power.

“Right now corporations have an enormous amount of power in the campaign finance system. So do the independently wealthy, with no limits on self-financing,” Bonta said. “To me, it’s absolutely critical that ordinary people and working families have a voice. Traditionally, that’s through organized labor. If you limit that in the current regime that we have, you will essentially be ceding power to large corporations. And I’m not willing to put my thumb on the scale in favor of large corporations.”

DeHaan withdrew a request for city staff to analyze spending from the 2010 campaign, at the urging of Gilmore, Bonta and Tam.
“I don’t know what they’d be analyzing because there’s no ordinance in place. And I think personally there are better uses for the city attorney’s time and resources. And frankly I don’t see what the point of that is,” Gilmore said, adding that local reporters and bloggers had already done the analysis.

DeHaan said he didn’t think his dais-mates were committed to campaign finance reform, a charge Gilmore and Tam denied. Councilwoman Beverly Johnson was the lone voice of support for considering a reform effort, though she said she was concerned about the things the proposed ordinance doesn’t address.

Johnson, deHaan and former Councilman Frank Matarrese were the subject of a spate of anonymous attack calls and mailers in the runup to the November 2010 election – mailers that could still run without donors’ names becoming public if the ordinance were enacted – along with others from named political action groups that wouldn’t see their spending limited by the proposed ordinance.

“Leading polling calls, television ads, constant ads even during the World Series. Remember that? This doesn’t touch that,” Johnson said.
The Sunshine Task Force submitted its proposed campaign finance and sunshine ordinances to the city in January 2011. The sunshine ordinance was taken up by the council in October, but city staff held the campaign finance ordinance to be heard at a later date.

The League of Women Voters of Alameda wrote the council in March to ask council members to consider the ordinance, and also to ask them to offer their support to a state bill that would require some donors to be named on now-anonymous campaign pieces. Council members agreed to consider supporting the state Disclose Act, of which Tam said she was a signatory.

DeHaan has taken particular aim at the spending of Alameda’s firefighters union, which paid $13,300 toward Gilmore’s mayoral run and thousands more into the campaign coffers of Bonta and Tam, and continued making contributions to everyone on the council but deHaan in the months leading up to a vote on their new contract, disclosure records showed. The firefighters spent nearly $9,400 to oppose deHaan’s 2010 mayoral candidacy, the records showed.

The proposed ordinance would limit campaign contributions to $500 per source, prohibit city contractors from contributing to campaigns and enhance reporting requirements; candidates who violate the rules could be cast off ballots or out of office, while they and other violators could be fined $1,000 per infraction. The ordinance also set voluntary campaign spending limits of $35,000 per mayoral candidate and $25,000 per council candidate.

Both Bonta and Gilmore took in around $68,000 in 2010, while Tam raised around $44,000 deHaan took in $23,000 and Johnson, $5,200 disclosure records showed.

Also on Tuesday, the council approved a new lease with the owners of the Alameda Marina that includes provisions for improvements and a possible extension that would kick in if the Marina’s owners get the city’s okay to develop upland of the site. It had been slated to expire in 2015.

The 25-year lease of state Tidelands property managed by the city includes a 41-year extension that would be put in place if the marina’s owners secure the approvals they would need to build what’s now envisioned as a mixed-use development on property they own adjacent to the Tidelands site, which sits along Clement Street between Alameda Marina Drive and Willow Street. The rent for the property is $116,992 plus a percentage of the money earned from boat slips and businesses on the site, and the property owner is expected to perform $1.5 million in maintenance and improvements in the first 15 years of the lease.


Submitted by dave on Wed, May 2, 2012

In Alameda, it is the public employee unions who have bought the process to the detriment of ordinary working people. They are the 1% in this bubble. They enjoy outsize benefits at the expense of taxpayers, almost none of whom can retire at 50 in such comfort.

Such irony...

Submitted by mhenneberry on Wed, May 2, 2012

It would be helpful if you're going to quote the mayor, or anyone else for that matter, to do it accurately. The term Mayor Gilmore used (the item begins at 1.29 mins of the video) was "working families" not "union members." The distinction is not trivial, not only is it an inaccurate account of what was said it gives the impression that working people of all kinds didn't support the candidacy of the mayor, only "union members" read: their unions. I have plenty of neighbors who supported the winners on the current city council who do not belong to unions but support a view of things that includes a voice for working families.
It is instructive that this discussion about political power took place on May Day when there is so much talk about the 1% and the 99%. Watch the tape, it's pretty clear to see who is where.

Submitted by Michele Ellson on Wed, May 2, 2012

Hi Mike,

Just to update you, I had a conversation with the mayor about this issue this morning and amended accordingly. Please see the piece for the updated language. Happy to have you post the clip as well.

Submitted by dconnolly on Wed, May 2, 2012

As an Alameda resident and member of a working family I strongly support councilmembers Tam, Bonta and Mayor Gilmore. In this particular issue they are exactly correct that the so-called reform would favor corporations and the elite and suppress the voices of ordinary people. I find it particularly objectionable that council member DeHaan has suggested that reform is needed because of the unions. Unions are a legitimate and honest voice for all working people, not just their own members, and their activities are a large part of what makes Alameda a great place to live.

Submitted by knealy on Wed, May 2, 2012

Would someone tell me what part corporations played in the 2010 election? It seems to have had lopsided support from the firefighters' union, but I haven't read anything about massive support from corporations.

Submitted by knealy on Wed, May 2, 2012

Oops. Forgot SunCal. That was indeed a mess. I favor the modest election reform proposed. It may not be the best, but it's better than where we are now. Citizens should at least know who's behind the money.

Submitted by Michele Ellson on Thu, May 3, 2012

Hey folks! It occurred to me I've got a few union folks up here, so I wanted to ask you both: Do you think campaign finance reform is needed at the local level and if so, what should it look like? Also, the thrust of the argument against this ordinance in respect to the unions seemed to be that unions level the playing field in terms of access to politicians in an age when wealthy corporations can spend unlimited amounts of money. Can you speak to how that has played out locally?

One other question, if you'll indulge me: The mayor said last night that families pay into unions I think (and I'm paraphrasing here) in order to gain political access. My memory is that some unions are open shops where you have the option to pay dues or not while others are closed shops, where you don't have the option of whether to pay dues. Any clarification on this point would be greatly appreciated.

Submitted by frank on Thu, May 3, 2012

T"ll take a shot at Part 2. To my knowledge there is no 'open shop' in CA. This means that a particular Union holds Contract rights at a specific facility any employee working there must be a member of that Union. There may be several different Unions holding different Contracs representing different crafts at the same facility (e.g Kaiser). Each employee must be a member of the Union representing his craft.

Open Shop is seen in other States such as AZ. These are called 'right to work States'. It is a misnomor for the most part.

As far as Union Dues at least that portion used for Political purposes CA has had an 'opt out' provision in place since the 70's. That means if you 'protest' the use of your Union Dues being used for a Political Purpose that fraction will be refunded to you. At least that is how it worked in my Local. There have been MANY attacks on the Unions Political contributions over the years as far as Ballot Initiatives go. At least in CA they have been defeated.
I am not a fan of present Campaign Finance laws because it has led to each side protecting its own and no compromise whatsoever. But to limit Union Contributions is not the answer.

Submitted by Michele Ellson on Thu, May 3, 2012

Thanks, Frank. Appreciate the response!