Talk to candidates for public office, and they’ll inevitably tell you about stages of the process. There’s the thrill of meeting supporters; the sheer exhaustion; there’s the discomfort of learning how to ask for money.
When I meet Cristina Medina Dirksen and Kathy Biala for a drink to talk about their first-time candidacy for public office, both are in the early stages of learning how to ask for money. Both are running for Marina City Council this November.
Some aspects are fun – at The General, the bar behind Dametra in The Dunes shopping center, the bartender is now serving a $16 Manhattan with extra cherries called the Cristina4Marina – but Biala and Medina are dreading the part about asking for money. Biala says she got a quote for campaign services (website, mailers, etc.) for $12,000.
In January, Marina City Council voted 3-2 to pass campaign finance reform, capping contributions at $200 from individuals – no PACs allowed. That ordinance takes effect on Feb. 22, and both Biala and Medina are now scrambling to raise $10,000 before that date, calling family members to ask for checks. Medina filed her first campaign finance document with the city clerk on Feb. 14, reporting a $1,000 gift from a friend, Tony Raffoul in Santa Maria.
That kind of campaign contribution – a big sum from an out-of-towner – is exactly what the new ordinance aims to block.
Councilmember Frank O’Connell is old-school when it comes to campaigning. He does virtually zero fundraising, preferring to go door-to-door to meet voters and ask for their support. He says he was concerned about a lack of candidates – in 2016, he and Councilmember Gail Morton faced no challengers. In 2018, with two open seats, now-councilmembers Adam Urrutia and Lisa Berkley ran unopposed. O’Connell says his mission in advocating for campaign finance reform was to encourage more people to participate.
“I saw a considerable amount of money coming in from nonresidents,” he says. “I thought a good way of approaching this was to [limit] contribution level and hopefully that would result in more people seeking elected office, and more people running who would have to actually go out and walk the streets and meet the people.”
Taking big money out of politics is a good idea that lots of us can rally around. Two billionaire Democratic presidential candidates, Tom Steyer and Michael Bloomberg, have spent more than $356 million of their own money so far. They could’ve built a desalination plant for the Monterey Peninsula by now. The sums are staggering, even those raised through small donations by candidates like Bernie Sanders, who has spent more than $50 million.
In the race for Monterey County supervisor to represent District 4, two out of four candidates have raised more than $500,000 so far.
With two first-time candidates in Marina scrambling to raise big money before the ordinance takes effect, they’re undermining this attempt at campaign finance reform for the 2020 election.
“You can say, well, Bernie did it – but we’re from Marina,” says Biala, a current Marina planning commissioner. “I don’t want to spend my time meeting with people asking for money. [Fundraising] has become a necessary evil.”
Marina’s is indeed a flawed ordinance, capping individual donations at $200 but allowing candidates to self-fund with no limit – something O’Connell, a retired attorney, says was a problem because of free speech protections.
“It favors a candidate who is already wealthy,” Medina says.
It might be flawed, but the only way to see how it shakes it is to actually try it. Biala is running in O’Connell’s district (he hasn’t yet decided whether he’ll seek re-election); Medina is running against Morton, who as of Jan. 1 had $915 in her campaign account.
It’s worth going through an election cycle or two to see how it goes – it would mean the end of $12,000 for Marina City Council.
Besides, there are some potential fixes. Medina suggests subsidizing filing fees (it’s $327 just to get in the game) and Biala proposes taking the $200 cap to $5, meaning no one would be spending very much at all.