Santa Cruz City Council candidates express different views on campaign fundraising
On the national level, campaign spending continues to escalate to mind-bending levels. And with the 2010 Supreme Court Citizens United ruling that removed all financial limits to corporate contributions, the financial arms race for candidates has become increasingly controversial.
According to the Washington Post, presidential candidate Mitt Romney was leading President Barack Obama in campaign fundraising in late August, $185.9 million to $123.7 million. The forthcoming election will be the most expensive on record, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
In June of 2000, in an effort to avert similar, though on a much smaller scale, escalation in local elections, the City of Santa Cruz enacted a voluntary spending cap on candidate fundraising. But in the current election cycle, candidates for Santa Cruz City Council differ in their views about raising money in local elections. Some have signed on to the city’s spending cap treaty, while others have opted out.
The city’s policy is to encourage local candidates to agree to its overall spending cap, which was set at $26,640.65 this year. The city also limits contributions from individuals to $325 and contributions from organizations to $780, which all candidates have agreed to.
The city incentivizes candidates to limit their fundraising by featuring their photo and a short statement on the city’s website if they agree to do so. Regardless, Councilwoman Lynn Robinson says that, in her experience, opting to raise more money is the more viable plan of action for serious candidates.
Four of the council’s seven seats will open this November as Councilmen Ryan Coonerty and Tony Madrigal term-out and Mayor Don Lane and Councilwoman Katherine Beiers end their four-year terms.
Eight candidates, including incumbent Lane and former three-time mayor and four-term councilwoman Cynthia Mathews, are vying for the seats. Six have agreed to campaign under the spending limit, stating desires to make the election process less about financial competition.
Candidates Jake Fusari, Cynthia Mathews, Don Lane, Cece Pinheiro, Steve Pleich and Micah Posner have all signed the agreement to spend no more than $26,640.65 each.
Newcomer candidates Richelle Noroyan and Pamela Comstock have chosen to not limit their fundraising because they say it would impede their ability to communicate with voters.
A leading argument against agreeing to the spending cap is that it gives the upper hand to incumbents, who have already established their names and policy ideas among voters.
In the last election for council, the three candidates who received the most votes went over the voluntary spending cap.
The top vote getter was Vice Mayor Hilary Bryant, with 22.52 percent of the votes. She both raised the most money—$45,087—and spent the most—$43,375. Robinson, who came in second with 21.70 percent of votes, raised $30,845 and spent $25,691.
Councilman David Terrazas raised and spent $35,474—almost $10,000 more than Robinson—but came in close behind with 20.28 percent of the votes cast.
In 2010, candidate Ron Pomerantz abided by the cap, raising $23,316 and spending $21,986, but did not win, receiving just 12.96 percent of the vote.
Robinson says that limiting themselves to the current fundraising cap is not realistic for candidates who are serious about winning.
“The ideals of that policy,” she says, referring to the cap, “and the reality of what it takes to have a winning campaign are becoming further apart. You have to recognize what it takes in terms of costs to run a campaign. If you don’t raise enough money, you’ve limited your ability to reach voters.”
Councilman Ryan Coonerty, elected to two terms in 2004 and 2008, raised about $45,000 in each election and spent $36,926 in the second.
“The expenditure limit is well intentioned,” he says, “but I think it has unintended consequences.”
He says the cap gives incumbents a big advantage and limits a candidate’s ability to tell voters what they plan to do in office. He does not believe that candidates should be allowed unlimited spending, but that the cap should be increased. Money spells communication in the context of an election, he says, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a problem. He suggests that the city finance the whole process so that candidates can focus entirely on community and policy.
Current candidate Pleich, who is abiding by the cap, believes that allowing money to do the talking has corrupted the national election process.
Posner, who recently stepped down as director at the sustainable transportation nonprofit People Power to run for council, is a strong advocate of spending limits. Without limits, he says money is wasted and elections can potentially go to candidates who are the best fundraisers but do not have the best policies.
“I think [limits are] an ethical approach,” he says. “There have to be boundaries in politics.”
Without limits, he says candidates will inevitably try to raise more money than their opponents, not unlike countries scrambling for weapons in an arms race. It will not matter how much money a candidate spends, just who spends the most.
“At what point is it enough money in an election?” Posner asks.
First time candidate Pinheiro, who is also abiding by the limits, says allowing money to have too much influence on campaigns takes away from the true purpose of the election process: to elect good leaders.
“Those who don’t limit themselves want to win more than they want to play fair,” Pinheiro says. “You should not have to spend that much money if you’re willing to do the work.”
First time candidate Fusari will abide by the cap and says he does not believe he will even come close to the limit. He plans to put his background in business marketing to work and find more cost-efficient and creative ways to reach voters. For example, he designed his own campaign signs and is focusing on using social media tools to communicate his goals.
“Santa Cruz is not a huge community,” he says. “Our voters can be reached without spending huge quantities of money.”
Mathews is an example of a candidate who campaigned within the spending limits and still won a seat on the council.
However, when asking Mathews, who helped to pass the spending ordinance while on the council, what it actually accomplishes, she replies, “It doesn’t do an awful lot by not being mandatory.”
Newcomer candidates Pamela Comstock and Richelle Noroyan have chosen not to limit their campaign expenditures, each citing the need to get their names out to voters.
“Because I’m new to the political scene, I feel I need more money to market myself,” Comstock says.
She plans to raise about $30,000. That will go to signage, mailers, advertising in local media and things like shirts, stickers and buttons, she says.
Noroyan aims to raise between $28,000 and $30,000.
“If you’re someone who has served on the council for many years and you already have that name recognition, perhaps $26,640 is realistic,” she says. “But if you’re someone who’s new, you may need to spend a little more money.”
Incumbent Don Lane, elected to term in 2008, raised $21,220 and spent $20,081. Today he is campaigning under a lower contribution limit than the city has set for candidates: $250 per individual and $600 per organization.
“The role of money in the larger political system of the country has made people cynical about the idea that they have a real say in what goes on in elections and their government,” Lane says.
He adds that by further lowering his own contribution limits, it forces him to broaden his base of support and raise smaller amounts of money from more people.
“I think that’s healthier for the system,” he says.