Campaign sewer overflows

Rules limiting political money are swept away

The flow of election cash is often a filthy river that you wouldn't want to drink from, and a recent local lawsuit, coupled with a new bit of state legislation, has muddied the waters even more.

On Sept. 20, US District Court Judge Jeffery S. White granted a preliminary injunction preventing the city from enforcing key sections of its Campaign Finance Reform Ordinance.

Two local groups with a sordid history of influencing elections with large chunks of cash — the Building Owners and Managers Association and the Committee on Jobs — argued in court that campaign contribution limits violate the First Amendment by financially curbing the ability to communicate a message (see "Pressing the Scales," 8/22/07). The contribution limits of independent-expenditure committees stumping for candidates were set by the voter-passed Proposition O in 2000 after the 1999 reelection of Mayor Willie Brown, in which deep-pocketed business interests backed the mayor in exchange for preferential treatment by city hall.

Prop. O capped contributions to IEs at $500, and people and corporations are allowed to give no more than $3,000 total (e.g., $500 each to six committees).

Those caps are no longer enforceable.

Similar injunctions have been granted in San Jose and Oakland, also destroying local contribution caps in those cities. San Jose appealed to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals and is waiting for a ruling. Ann O'Leary, a lawyer in City Attorney Dennis Herrera's office, told us San Francisco is waiting to see what happens in San Jose before making the next move, though an appeal is planned regardless of that outcome. In the past the Supreme Court has ruled that the appearance of corruption in elections is sufficient grounds for restricting campaign contributions, and San Francisco's history provides ample examples from which to draw to support that decision.

"We don't know if it will get back to court before November 2008," O'Leary said of the case, "but it's certainly something to watch in that election."

Meanwhile, over in Sacramento, legislators on cruise control recently passed a bill that may make it impossible for San Francisco to write its election laws anyway. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger just signed Assembly Bill 1430, and according to the legislative digest, the new law "prohibits local governments from adopting campaign finance ordinances that restrict communications between an organization and its members unless state law similarly restricts such communications, or by regulation by the Fair Political Practices Commission."

Proponents say the new law will resolve conflicting interpretations of campaign finance regulations, but opponents say it preserves wide-open loopholes in the Political Reform Act that local jurisdictions have tried to close. For example, a person may be prohibited by the city from giving more than $500 to support a certain candidate. That person can, however, give as much as $30,200 to the Democratic Party, which can then "communicate" a message of support for that candidate to its members.

A recent and egregious example: in San Diego the county Republican Party spent almost $1 million on local races in 2006.

The bill was authored by Carlsbad Republican Martin Garrick and flew through the State Assembly unopposed. Assemblymember Mark Leno told us it came to the Elections Committee, on which he sits, with no vocal opposition, so he gave it an aye. One of his aides, however, became concerned and started making calls. Eventually, Common Cause and the League of Women Voters rallied against it, but it only hit a speed bump in the State Senate. There was still too much support from the Democrats to kill it.