Follow the money: campaign finance sets District 3 candidates apart
Questions raised about developer dollars, self-funding
Published Thursday, 30-Oct-2008 in issue 1088
The run-of-the-mill race to replace District 3’s termed-out Toni Atkins on the San Diego City Council has, in its final days, come down to the candidates trying to distinguish themselves to voters.
The parity between Democrat Todd Gloria and Democrat Stephen Whitburn’s campaigns has, at times, sounded like a broken record – both support an infrastructure bond, reinstating community resource officers, funding for transportation and affordable housing, a new proposal that allows more public space at the Navy Broadway Complex, and more money plugged into neighborhoods.
In fact, campaign finance has been one of the few ways voters tell one from the other – and it’s been an attack issue for supporters in both camps.
“What makes it an interesting race is, for the most part, the candidates are very similar,” said Larry Remer, a political consultant who worked on John Hartley’s District 3 race in the primary. Hartley has since endorsed Whitburn. “Other than the development issue, there’s not much difference between them.”
In an interview published in the Gay & Lesbian Times last week, the candidates discussed finance – in particular, the criticism each has faced for developer contributions, and, in Whitburn’s campaign, for pumping more than $200,000 into the election.
Development contributions have been the primary focus of residents attacking Gloria’s campaign.
“District 3 is probably the most ideologically liberal district in the city, so concern about developer contributions would be high, particularly considering the issues the district is facing with developments in Hillcrest and Kensington,” Remer said.
Whitburn supporters have raised issue with a number of Gloria’s contributors, among them Perry Dealy, who, according to Gloria is the former president of the Manchester Financial Group, which has made a proposal for the Navy Broadway Complex; Sherm Harmer, president of the San Diego County Building Industry Association; Thomas Sudberry, owner of Sudberry Properties, and owner of the council-approved Quarry Falls development; and Sunroad lobbyist Mitch Berner.
Gloria’s camp says the candidate has a broad base of support, which includes small business owners, teachers, nurses, retirees, nonprofit executives – and developers. Whitburn’s camp says the development dollars in Gloria’s campaign are questionable.
“I think the question is: why have so many developers contributed so much money to [Gloria’s] campaign?” Whitburn said. “Why are so many developers and so many lobbyists contributing so much money to his campaign? We have had a City Council that many people feel has been overly influenced by developers and lobbyists for decades in San Diego and the citizens and our neighborhoods have suffered. People know I will not be influenced by developers or lobbyists.”
Gloria said the fact Whitburn has also accepted contributions from developers is often overlooked.
“What I’ve done is I’ve accepted contributions from all parts of the community,” Gloria said. “To have focused on a small part of my contributions and ignore the fact that I also have more contributions from doctors and nurses, teachers, organized labor, nonprofit executives, is, I think, cherry-picking facts that really exclude the full truth, which is, my opponent has accepted developer dollars as well.”
A mailer was sent last week by the San Diego Voter Education Project, which, according to campaign documents, and was funded with $5,000 each from retired Marine Sgt. Robert Lehman (listed on the document as the CEO of RSF Execare) and Eugene P. Heytow, CEO of Amalgamated Bank of Chicago, and $1,000 from Sudberry.
The mailer showed a mock campaign contribution form with names of Whitburn contributors who supposedly have links to developers, though some questioned the names listed; among them, Tom Mullaney, who worked with Friends of San Diego to fight the 301 University project.
The mailer also says, “Say no to backroom deals. Say no to developers.”
While Gloria supporters are eager to point out the developer dollars in Whitburn’s campaign, they are more quick to target the fact Whitburn has pumped approximately $210,000 into his campaign.
“I think when you see candidates self-funding their races it causes one to ask what support that candidate has in the community,” Gloria said. “The other thing about self-funding is there is the opportunity to pay yourself back, and I think folks have raised questions about, not only where the money comes from, but also how will the money be repaid.”
In January 2005, the San Diego Ethics Commission set a $100,000 loan limit per candidate per campaign. It also set a 180 day post-election window for a candidate to seek contributions to repay the loan.
Prior to 2005, candidates were able to loan an unlimited amount of money to their campaigns. Now, candidates are able to make unlimited contributions to their campaigns – but only $100,000 can be considered a loan, which can be repaid.
Whitburn told the Gay & Lesbian Times last week he has been saving the money he contributed to his campaign for 25 years.
“The developers and the lobbyists are not writing me checks,” Whitburn said. “A campaign is expensive. I have had to fight to ensure that we have the resources to let people know what this campaign stands for: good government and a city council that works for the people. That is very important to me. I have been humbled by the many hundreds of good people who have contributed to this campaign. I have asked people to dig as deeply as they can to support what we believe in – and I expect nothing less from myself. I have dug as deep as I can to support this campaign as well.”
Remer said self-funding can be a roll of the dice; it hasn’t always worked, most notably in Steve Francis’ bid for mayor, which he pumped more than $5 million of his own money into.
“Self-funding is no guarantee to victory,” Remer said. “[Self-funding] can be a concern. People who pump a lot of their own money into a campaign are seen as being wealthy, and the average voter can’t put $20,000, $50,000, $100,000 or $5 million – in the case of [Francis’] race – into an election.”