With the crowded race to succeed Assemblyman Rich Gordon in the 24th District heading into the final stretch, independent political action committees are throwing hundreds of thousands of dollars into the contest in hopes of influencing the outcome.
Palo Alto City Councilman Marc Berman has been the chief beneficiary of these political action committees, with groups funded by dentists, Realtors, car dealers, poultry farmers and pawnbrokers collectively contributing thousands of dollars to his campaign in the month leading up to the June 7 primary.
Berman, an attorney who until last fall worked as development director at the Silicon Valley Education Foundation, benefited from huge infusion of cash from EdVoice Independent Expenditure Committee, the political arm of the Sacramento-based education-policy nonprofit. Last week, the committee made a series of expenditures totaling $368,291 to support Berman's bid for the Assembly.
The group paid for several fliers, one touting Berman as "one of our region's innovative leaders" and crediting him for "(leading) the charge to transition Palo Alto toward cleaner energy" and for helping to close the achievement gap in public schools.
Berman said the EdVoice expenditures were made completely independently from his campaign. "We had no coordination with (EdVoice) whatsoever," Berman said.
The California Real Estate Independent Expenditure Committee, based in Los Angeles, is also backing Berman with fliers and contributions. Last week, the group issued several fliers urging voters to support Berman, one touting his "proven record of fighting for us" and another referring to him as a "progressive focused on fiscal responsibility."
Meanwhile, another independent group, Californians Allied For Patient Protection Independent Expenditure Account, paid for an ad that takes a swing at Vicki Veenker, who is also vying for the Assembly seat. The flier criticizes Veenker for not having held an elected office and for having "never been seen at council meetings." In an obvious allusion to Donald Trump, the flier states that Veenker "sounds like someone we know running for President, doesn't it."
The attack ad drew an immediate rebuke from the California chapter of the National Women's Political Caucus of California, which has endorsed Veenker. Angelica Ramos, president of the group's local chapter, issued a statement that blasted the ad for implying to Peninsula women and girls that "despite all the hard work they do behind the scenes, like Vicki, they are unqualified for advancement as well.
"This is the kind of institutional sexism that discourages other qualified women from running for office, and it shows," the statement read.
(Berman told the Palo Alto Weekly that his campaign had nothing to do with the mailer and that negative attacks have no place in the race.)
Veenker is also backed by numerous political action committees, though she lags far behind Berman in contributions from these groups. Last week she received one $4,200 contribution from the Women's Political Committee and another $4,200 contribution from the Women In Power Political Action Committee. And last month, she received $8,500 from the California Nurses Association Political Action Committee; $2,500 from the Mountain View Professional Firefighters Political Action Committee; and $1,000 from D.R.I.V.E., a political action committee of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.
Earlier this year, Veenker also benefited from an $8,500 contribution from the California Teachers Association, one of her top backers.
Veenker is the only candidate in California who is being directly opposed by the Californians Allied For Patient Protection Independent Expenditure Account. The group has raised money to support numerous candidates for the state Assembly, including Joaquin Arambula in District 31; Matt Dababheh in District 45; Bill Dodd in District 3; and Raul Bocanegra in District 39. It has also raised $32,501 specifically to oppose Veenker, according to its campaign statement.
Political action committees have largely refrained from contributing to the campaigns of Mountain View council members Mike Kasperzak and John Inks; or to Menlo Park Councilman Peter Ohtaki, the sole Republican in the race. And Cupertino Mayor Barry Chang, who has raised close to $300,000, did so largely by relying on contributions from individuals and area companies (the sole exception was the $2,250 that Chang received from the Associated Builders and Contractors Northern California Chapter PAC).
In a campaign statement filed earlier this month, Chang listed dozens of major contributions that collectively totaled $289,000. Many of these contributions were in the form of $4,200 and $8,500 checks from companies that are based outside the district and that gave more than once.
Tropicana Russell Inc., based in San Mateo, contributed a pair of $4,200 checks. So did Tiptoe Properties, LLC; Marina Brothers, Inc.; and Bayca Inc. all companies based in San Jose. According to Chang's statement, he received two more $4,200 contributions from Caixing Xie, owner of Bayca. Similarly, Chang received donations totaling $42,000 from Campbell-based firm South Bay Construction, in addition to separate contributions from the company's partners.
Chang's tendency to get separate contributions from a business and from its owners is unusual, given that the city's campaign finance laws treat donations from a firm's controlling partner as an individual donation and that many of his donors had already made the maximum allowed contribution in their capacity as individuals. And while Chang only reported these contributions in his "late contributions" filing earlier this month, many of them were made last year (in some cases, going back to last July).
When asked about this irregularity by the Mountain View Voice (the Almanac's sister paper), Chang explained that he had made an extra effort this campaign cycle to adhere to elections rules, which he described as "complicated." He pointed out that these large donations had been included in his committee's standard campaign-finance report submitted last month.
Chang, who was sanctioned by the Federal Political Practice Commission for his failing to disclose 160 contributions to his 2014 campaign for the City Council, also told the Voice that he had recently retained a Sacramento accounting firm to serve as his treasurer. He was notified only then that he should file additional paperwork for the large donations.
"I'm glad I had (my accountant) because she's the expert," Chang said. "To the best of my knowledge I filed them, and I filed them correctly. But she said we had to file them again."
The two remaining candidates, retired engineer Seelam Reddy and community activist Jay Cabrera, are running low-budget campaigns and have not formed committees for their respective Assembly bids.
Mountain View Voice staff writer Mark Noack contributed to this report