Ethics Commission considers increasing campaign donation & spending limits tonight

Tonight, the Oakland Public Ethics Commission will hold a special meeting about local campaign contribution and expenditure limits.

You may have read about this proposal yesterday on FutureOakland or maybe earlier in Jean Quan’s hysterical newsletter.

Campaign contribution and expenditure limits in Oakland

In short, the City Attorney has proposed that the existing Oakland campaign contribution and expenditure limits be doubled (PDF). The way it works right now is that you can either spend as much money as you want, but only take $100 donations, or you can agree to voluntarily spending limits and accept donations of up to $700 from individuals. Basically everyone takes the spending limits. Currently, the spending limit for the Mayoral race is $379,000.

Campaign contribution limits are by no means unique to Oakland. They exist at in State and Federal races, and many other cities have decided to impose contribution limits in their local races as well. An attachment to the report on this issue to the Ethics Commission lists the existing limits in other California cities (PDF), as does Jean Quan in her blog and newsletter. (Quan’s “comparative” list, BTW, conveniently only lists the cities that have lower limits than Oakland and omits those that have higher ones, like Santa Ana ($1,000), Anaheim ($1,700), Fresno ($3,600), and Sacramento ($3,000), Glendale ($1,000), as well as those that have no limits, like Bakersfield, Riverside, Stockton, Modesto, and San Bernadino.)

Why would we raise the limit?

Under our old election system, these limits applied separately in both the primary and general elections. That is, if you gave someone the maximum donation for their primary campaign, and the race happened to go into a runoff (as was the case with the 2008 At-large City Council election), you could give them the maximum donation again for their runoff campaign. This was because there were two elections, even though it was only for one office.

Now that we’re doing Ranked Choice Voting, we will no longer have two (or the potential for two) elections for municipal offices, only a single election in November. The City Attorney reasons (PDF) that since there will now only be one election where there used to be two, that single election should have the same total limits as used to exist for both elections combined. Additionally, the City Attorney argues that the extra money will allow candidates to educate voters about Ranked Choice Voting, which will be new to them in November.

Why wouldn’t we raise the limit?

Ethics Commission staff does not agree with this rationale (PDF), and notes that most local elections do not go to a runoff. The report further notes that it is the County, not individual candidates, that bears the responsibility of educating residents about the new voting system.

Another attachment to the staff report features 22 letters received about the proposal (PDF). One is in favor and 21 are against. Here is a sampling of what the letter writers have to say:

Is American turning into a country where only the rich can run for office and get elected? Are we turning into Great Britain before the American Revolution or France before the French Revolution? American was founded on the premise that anyone could run for office and become a representative of the people. With the rise of campaign donation limits it is obvious that only special interest will have great influence in who gets elected. This is a travesty of the American political system and it should be halted.

I strongly oppose this. Lower limits help us stay more honest and make it more likely that the election is actually based on issues and qualifications. And the availability of extra funds to make higher donations to a campaign suggests to me that unethically high prices have been charged for services or products somewhere. Wouldn’t we all rather make our own decision about who (and what) to contribute our hard-earned money to than to have it made for us by Microsoft, or Sun, or Mechanics Bank, or an insurance company?

These should be REDUCED NOT INCREASED. What are they thinking

Being that I had a long term interest in Oakland, in a large part for its key value in keeping the wheels of commerce in the Bay Area running as best as possible for the benefit of the entire Bay Area as the key shipping port for Central and Northern California. Preamble: I beg your indulgence to describe two Campaign Finance options. Preamble: Presidential Candidate Obama once supported construction of a transcontinental high speed Freight-Only railway for common use of all rail lines. Given the absolute need to avoid, or duplicate, same-level road crossings (they kill over 300 a year), very costly tunnels and bridges, to keep the rails level and the new ability to optimize paths using the latest airplane and satellite GPS data and computer technology. It is my opinion that this project will be done, as soon as possible, possibly to put people back to work, all across the nation.

Option A. Make a new Finance Office of the Ethics Commission the recipient of all donation above some limit, for example, a Private Business could give X00s Dollars to one, or more Council Members up to the new allowed limit that you will set. And, the same donor may contribute YOOs Dollars to the new Ethics Commission Finance Office, without any limits, to be evenly divided among current Council Members running for re-election….

I guess the last one should get some credit for thinking outside of the box?

Basically, all the objections are premised on the idea that we need to keep money out of elections in order to preserve a level playing field and that low contribution limits accomplish that.

Why it doesn’t matter

So here’s the thing about money. There are always going to be people who have a lot of money. And here’s the thing about money and politics. Some of those people are always going to want to spend their piles of money to influence elections. And they are going to find a way to do it, no matter what you try to do to stop it. You just can’t. I’m sorry. But you can’t. And if you think that you’re going to keep money out of elections by imposing strict contribution limits, well, you’re delusional.

We have watched this play out on the State level, where individual contributions to a candidate are limited but independent expenditures on behalf of a candidate are not (so long as these expenditures are not coordinated with the campaign). We will soon watch it play out across the Country.

The result of contribution limits is not to reduce the amount of money spent on elections. Far from it. All that happens is a shift in where money gets spent. The candidate’s campaign becomes less important and the independent expenditures become more so. If you tell people who have lot of money to spend and want to spend it that they can’t give it to a candidate’s campaign, they will find another way to spend it to further their purposes. Sometimes these efforts may be inept and counterproductive, like those ridiculous and terrifying SAFE neighborhoods NOW signs that Oakland Jobs PAC plastered all over town to promote Kerry Hamill’s City Council campaign in 2008, or the “homocide” mailer, also promoting Kerry Hamill and also courtesy of Oakland Jobs PAC in 2008, or that horrifying chalk body outline mailer OakPAC sent out bashing Nancy Nadel the same year. But whether or not these expenditures effectively communicate their message is besides the point. It’s still money.

What you can do about it

So how do you combat the influence of people who have lots of money? Well, you give your own.

I don’t make a lot of money by any stretch of the imagination. $700 is a huge amount to me, and I’m not the sort of person who can just whip out the checkbook and drop seven hundred, or hell, even a hundred dollars without feeling it. But I maxed out my contributions to one local campaign last election cycle and I can say without a moment of hesitation that I would have given more if I had been allowed to. And I intend to do so again in 2010. Knowing that elections were on the way, I have spent the last year and a half slowly putting some money from every single paycheck away into a little personal donation pool so that I will have the ability to help the candidates who I want to see win.

I completely realize I’m way more invested in these things than the average person, and I obviously don’t expect every struggling Oaklander to save up for eighteen months so they can make hefty contributions to local campaigns. My point is simply that if you really want to give, you can do it, even if your means are limited.

So that’s my advice. Whatever happens with the Ethics Commission tonight and perhaps ultimately the City Council with respect to contribution limits, there’s going to be a ton of money in the Mayoral race. You can’t stop that. I’m sorry, I wish that weren’t the case, but it just is. You don’t like it? Too bad, you can’t change it. You want to do something about it? Give.

I remember vividly a message I received from someone working on a local campaign a few years ago after I had made my second donation. I had previously given the candidate $50, and then like a month or so later, as the election was drawing closer, I starting feeling really bad about the long odds they were up against, so I coughed up (not without difficulty) another $50. Within minutes, I got the following e-mail:

on behalf of the [redacted] campaign, I wish you would stop contributing money. For gosh sakes, we have people in [super rich neighborhood] living in 3 million dollar homes who only contribute $25 or take a sign.

That was just so sad to me. People in Oakland complain and complain and complain all the time about how frustrated they are with their entrenched, dysfunctional government, yet they don’t seem to be willing to do what it takes to change it. You want new leadership? Newsflash: campaigns cost money. Mailers are expensive. Door hangers are expensive. Walk pieces are expensive. Office space is expensive. It takes money to run. It just does. You can hate it all you want. I hate it. But hating it doesn’t change anything and neither does whining.

I’m not saying everyone needs to run around giving everybody the max or even close to it. And I’m not going to tell you who you should give to. But if you care about these things (and I assume you do if you’re reading this blog), and you find a candidate you sincerely want to see be the Mayor or City Councilmember or on the School Board or BART Board or Peralta Board or whatever, write them a check. If you want to reduce the influence of other people’s money, the way to do it is to dilute the importance of their money.

And whatever your first inclination is for an amount to donate, pause for a second and think about whether or not you can afford to give more. How much does who is running your city matter to you? How much do you want this person to win? What can you sacrifice to allow yourself to give a little bit more? One dinner out? Two? Ten? Think about it. Figure out what you can afford. Yeah, writing that check, in whatever amount you settle on, is going to hurt you a lot more than it hurts Daddy Warbucks or whoever. But that’s just life. Deal with it.

The Public Ethics Commission will meet to discuss the proposal (PDF) at 6:30 PM tonight in Oakland City Hall Hearing Room 1.

14 thoughts on “Ethics Commission considers increasing campaign donation & spending limits tonight

  1. Jenn

    V – You are right in that limits drive money away from the candidate campaigns and into IEs where the candidate has absolutely no say in what is communicated to voters. In San Francisco, under IRV and public financing and limits of all sorts, there have been vicious IEs. I think Quan will likely be the target of some, too.

    What we need is total transparency and the ability to see who is making campaign contributions, not limiting those contributions. In other states contributions are reported online within just a few days of their receipt — for all to see!

    And yes, people should support the candidates they want — with $5 or $500. Mail and television are expensive, and that won’t change.

  2. V Smoothe Post author

    I am in 100% agreement about the need for increased transparency with respect to donations. Oakland’s current system is atrocious.

  3. John Klein

    Russo’s recommendation about campaign contribution limits is outside his authority to even make and any discussion of it by the PEC tonight is improper. The Council asked him to implement RCV/IRV. Campaign contribution limits has nothing to do with implementing the new voting system. The City Attorney may only advise on things the Council or Mayor specifically request. There is no indication they asked for a recommendations on campaign contribution limits, and campaign contributions have nothing to do with IRV. Russ has improperly ‘mixed’ the two issues.

    This is important. The City Attorney shouldn’t be out in the public recommending things the Council or Mayor have not asked for or approved. That’s what happened here and Russo has over-stepped his authority.

    Also, Russo’s claim that candidates will be ‘required’ to perform more outreach under RCV/IRV is a completely inappropriate position for the City Attorney to take and, frankly, is none of his business. Being a candidate is voluntary and no candidate is required to do any outreach. It is for each candidate to decide how much or whether to do any outreach – not the City Attorney.

  4. Robert

    John, I don’t know where you get the brain-dead concept that the City Attorney can only speak when spoken to. In this case, his opinion concerns an outcome of a proposal that he is required to make to bring the municipal code into compliance with the charter.

  5. Ralph

    So if the reason we need to increase campaign contributions this year is due to the candidate’s need to do voter outreach (which Iike JK I disagree), then what happens in subsequent years after we have performed outreach. Do we revert to old limits.

    People who either have money or have access to money will find a way to use it. But if you are running a grassroots campaign you might need a helping hand especially given the length of the fight. I’m in favor of increasing the limit, I have no idea what that number should be. But I do know that I would rather hear the candidate’s positive message versus some outside party’s message of fear. So, if that means raising the limits to give a candidate a fighting chance then so be it. The only thing I know JR’s logic for $1400makes no sense.

    I am curious why would a candidate say stop sending me money. Maybe fatcat in uber rich neighborhood had other obligations.

  6. oakie

    So why is Russo all of a sudden out in front to double the limits? Guess we can assume he’s supporting Don “22 Inch Chrome Wheel” Perata. Apparently Russo has quite a need to be in the limelight.

    As to your suggestion, so we’re supposed to give money to either one of the most anti-business members of the Seven Drawfs (who, previously on the school board, endorsed Ebonics as a “genetic” language of Oakland), or Perata who demonstrates the emotional maturity of a very troubled 15 year old, in a 60 year old body.

    I think I would rather tear up the money and burn it. It would be a more positive statement, with the added benefit of acting in violation of federal law.

  7. Max Allstadt


    If Russo was out to support Perata, he wouldn’t have written such an incredibly harsh and inflexible opinion calling for the immediate implementation of Instant Runoff Voting. Perata was on an epic mission from God to stop IRV, and Russo played a big part in thwarting him.

    I disagree with Russo’s position on raising overall spending limits. In the last election, only Dellums maxxed out (actually he went over the limit, and wouldn’t you know, he got a slap on the wrist). Ideally, the top three or four candidates all max out, or come close to it, so that the competition isn’t about who can find more money, but about who can spend the same amount of money most wisely. Keeping the overall limit low makes this more likely.

    I agree with Russo’s position on raising individual donation limits, for the same reason V does.

  8. John Klein

    Hi Robert: it’s in the City Charter, Charter section 401(6) Powers of the City Attorney.

    “The City Attorney shall serve as counsel to the Mayor, City Council…”

    “The City Attorney shall render written legal opinions when the same are requested in writing by the Mayor or a member of the Council…”

    “He or she shall draft such ordinances, resolutions, contracts and other legal documents as directed by the Council or requested by the Mayor…”

    This proposal was presented to Rules Committee but had never been requested, to my knowledge. The City Attorney can only render legal opinions or draft ordinances when directed to do so in writing by the City Council or Mayor. This is so the City Attorney doesn’t go off making proposals the City Council doesn’t like or want. That’s what he did here.

    During all the discussion of RCV/IRV, not once were changes in campaign contribution limits discussed or included in ballot measure. The two are unrelated and the Council did not request the City Attorney’s opinion on campaign contributions. I’ve asked the City Attorney for just such a written request, if they have it.

  9. John Klein

    Robert, the City Attorney’s powers are enumerated. If the Charter does not grant a power, that means the power was withheld intentionally. He can’t assume powers which are not specifically granted.

    One of the powers not granted is the authority to recommend legislation. The reason is obvious, there can be only one legislative & policy-making body and that is the City Council. The Council sets policy, not the City Attorney.

  10. Robert

    John, That is, quite frankly, a bizarre interpretation of the English language. I will leave it to Marleen for any possible alternative legal interpretation. But your concept is contraindicated by the sentence later in the same paragraph “He or she shall not settle or dismiss any litigation brought for the City nor settle any litigation brought against the City which may be under his control unless upon his written recommendation he or she is authorized to do so by the Council. ” In this sentence, a specific power is withheld from the City Attorney. So in common usage, if the intention of the Charter was to withhold other powers, they would also be specifically enumerated, or, alternatively, have been granted elsewhere in the charter to some other group or individual.

    There is a vast difference between recommending a policy or ordinance and approval of any such recommendation, which is granted to the council.

  11. CitizenX

    Robert, John is correct. The Council is vested in all powers of legislation, subject to the EXPRESS limitations of the Charter:

    “Section 207. Powers of the Council. The Council shall be the governing body of the City. It shall exercise the corporate powers of the City and, subject to the expressed limitations of this Charter, it shall be vested with all powers of legislation in municipal affairs adequate to provide a complete system of local government consistent with the Constitution of the State of California. It shall have no administrative powers. The Council shall fix the compensation of all City employees, officers and officials except as otherwise provided by this Charter. ”

    The Mayor has an express function/power/duty to:
    “Recommend to the Council such measures and legislation as he deems necessary and to make such other recommendations to the Council concerning the affairs of the City as he finds desirable.”

    The Attorney? Zippo.

  12. MarleenLee

    I haven’t studied this issue in detail, but there is no way that a City Charter could possibly specify all the things a City Attorney can or should do in the scope of his duties. His job is to represent the City’s (i.e. Council, Mayor, organization) interests. If that means giving opinions or make recommendations even when not asked, of course he can do that. He can do it whenever an issue comes up, or is likely to come up. That’s an attorney’s ethical obligation. With IRV, I can see that there could have been some confusion about how to interpret the finance limits in light of the change. Better resolve the issue now, before spending gets into full swing, than wait for somebody to cry foul later. (Oh, I thought I was limited to $600 – that other guy spent $1200 – I’m filing a complaint!) So issuing an opinion on the subject doesn’t strike me as outside his jurisdiction.

  13. John Klein

    Last night, the PEC voted to not support the proposal to increase contribution limits, although that doesn’t exactly resolve the issue – it must still go back to the Rules committee.

    But, public comments at the meeting and by email were nearly 50-1 against raising the contribution limit. Hopefully, the Rules committee, and especially Mr. De La Fuente, will recognize there is zero support for it and will allow the idea to die in committee.