Thursday, February 17, 2005

What are friends for?

[This was posted at my first blog The Other Santa Rosa 9/16/04.]

I've been saying and writing for years that the local political/economic/social establishment is a private club of friends, neighbors, and business associates, who look after each others' interests. Here's what "veteran Sonoma County political consultant" Terry Price told the Press Democrat, for a 9/13/04 article on campaign finance:

"Price, who has worked on campaigns in Sonoma County for 20 years, said political influence at the local level arises more from friendships than from $500 or $1,000 contributions. 'If you say that 60 percent or 70 percent of your funds come from one segment of the community and then you go back and look at how these folks vote, there's a direct correlation,' he said.

'You can't say they're independent ... it (money) permeates everything. Politics is all about personal relationships. It's based on who people know, who they spent their time with, who has the same value set.' " ("Cities' campaign finance laws seen as ineffectual")

Another local consultant put it more generally: "Brian Sobel, a former Petaluma city councilman who is now a political consultant, said cities will continue to look for ways to control the perception that money influences political decisions. 'But we also need to be honest about this. Everyone is trying to influence elections,' he said.

'There are no white knights. Environmental groups, conservative groups, middle-of-the-road groups, friends of the apples, friends of dogs--everyone is trying to influence the election.' "

Perhaps everyone would like to influence elections, but it's the money that gets candidates elected: "If Santa Rosa's new $500 individual contribution limit had been in effect two years ago, two candidates--downtown news store owner John Sawyer and longtime City Councilwoman Janet Condron--each would have had to turn away more than 20 percent of their campaign treasuries.

Councilman Bob Blanchard would have had to turn down the largest dollar total, $15,600, or 17 percent of what he raised. Such large dollar figures--much from the building and development industry--can fuel accusations that monied interests are buying political good will."

Council candidate Sawyer, who raised $52,400 two years ago, says you can't buy a vote for $1,000: "The large amounts do not buy influence, Sawyer said. During his unsuccessful 2002 bid, he took in $12,500 in donations that would have been prohibited under today's $500 limit.

Sawyer said he would not have been able to run a high-profile campaign without large donations. 'The perception of being able to buy an election is there. But the reality is, even at $1,000, no one that has any integrity is going to have their vote purchased. It's not $500,000, it's not a million dollars,' he said."

And Sawyer says it simply costs too much to run for office: "With costs between $7,500 and $10,000 for a single campaign mailer, Sawyer said simply capping individual contributions won't control spending. The average election spending in Santa Rosa in 2002 was nearly $50,000 per candidate.

'Trying to keep the costs down of running should be the goal,' Sawyer said. 'The per-person donation can be mitigated by going after more people. The real rub is how much it costs to run in the first place. If you didn't need to spend it, you wouldn't have to raise it.' "

Consultant Sobel explains how to evade individual contribution limits: "candidates simply need to get more inventive in fund raising, veteran political consultants said. 'If a person is married, make sure the spouse writes a check and the kids write a check,' Sobel said.

Financial disclosure documents commonly show contributions from several members of the same family--some who live in other parts of the country, and all of whom donate the maximum amount allowed by law. It's not unusual for a company executive to contribute the city's maximum allowed, $500 for example, and arrange for his or her employees to donate the same amount. As long as the employer does not reimburse the employees, the practice is legal."

Terry Price gets the last word on local campaign finance reform measures: "'Everybody thinks they're making these huge leaps forward with these laws, but in fact, in two years they'll think it doesn't work, that everyone is getting around them.' "


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