Pay to Play
Enviro, business PACs throw big dollars at county supervisor races.
Thursday, May 31, 2012
When yard signs spring up like mushrooms, it signals the season of big campaign spending. The cost of those signs, and the glossy brochures stuffing mailboxes countywide: $1.1 million.
That’s what the eight candidates for three seats on the County Board of Supervisors had collectively spent as of May 18, the most recent campaign finance reporting deadline.
The donors backing them range from parents and friends giving $100 to political action committees and corporations giving close to six figures.
Monterey County Business PAC has put $50,000 down on the races so far, but its chairman, Kurt Gollnick, says you can’t buy votes. He likens backing candidates to the president appointing Supreme Court justices: You think you know what you’re getting, but their decisions are impossible to predict.
“You’ve got to select candidates on the basis of their core values and philosophies and beliefs,” he says, “because there is no way in hell you can affect their vote at the end of the day.”
The Business PAC – a coalition of interest groups including the Monterey County Hospitality Association, Grower-Shipper Association, Farm Bureau for Monterey County and Vintners and Growers Association – tells the story of a wide range of industries that have banded together in recent years to battle vocal environmental groups.
The Business PAC formed a decade ago to influence the General Plan revision process, Gollnick says, as “a balance to LandWatch,” a local nonprofit advocating progressive land-use policies.
LandWatch board member Julie Engell’s 501(c)(4), the North Salinas Valley Fund for Responsible Growth, is the largest single donor to the supervisor elections to date, with contributions of $45,000 each to District 4 Supervisor Jane Parker and District 5 challenger Marc Del Piero (who pulled in an additional $10,000 from Engell’s husband, Curtis Spitler).
That backing has led opponents to deride them as “LandWatch candidates,” a claim Del Piero says is overblown. “If I get elected, my office is open to anybody who’s a constituent,” he says. “[Contributions] will have no bearing on my willingness to meet with people. Everyone gets equal access.”
The fund is a successor to the Rancho San Juan Opposition Coalition, and spends the money it received in 2008 from a confidential settlement with developer HYH Corporation on smart-growth candidates.
As the second-largest spender so far, the Business PAC is backing Parker’s challenger Byrl Smith with $45,000, and incumbents Fernando Armenta (District 1) and Dave Potter (District 5) with $2,500 each. Gollnick expects the three-way races in Districts 1 and 5 to end in a November runoff, and his PAC will put down more cash then.
Smith also took in $20,000 from the Salinas Valley Leadership Group, a PAC construction giant Don Chapin launched after Salinas City Council voted against a Walmart in 2009.
The Leadership Group PAC backed Salinas City Council members Kimbley Craig and Steve McShane, who beat incumbents in 2010 on a pro-business platform and say they couldn’t have run competitive races without the Leadership Group’s backing.
“It’s no different than the unions throwing $3,0000 or $5,000 at a candidate,” Craig says. “I think that’s a fair thing to do in politics.”
Unions have contributed almost $18,000 so far on the three supervisor races combined, with Armenta leading the way in union contributions at $7,350.