EDITOR’S NOTE: The story has been updated to reflect that Craig Garcia has not received support from the Deputy Sheriff’s Association. This article also contains links to campaign finance documents.
ENCINITAS — Thousands of dollars of so-called “dark money” is emerging as a major factor in city council races in a pair of North County cities.
In Encinitas and San Marcos, two cities where stakes are high in their respective council races, political action committees have pumped thousands into candidates. In both cities, Republican or conservative candidates have been the recipients of the largess.
Thad Kousser, a political science professor at UC San Diego, said that PAC spending at the local level is the new frontier, but it shouldn’t come as a surprise that thousands of dollars are flowing from committees into these races.
Pointing to a City Council race in Richmond, California, which saw campaign money totaling nearly $3 million, Kousser said that these once small races have big implications.
“The stakes for some of these decisions can be in the thousands or millions of dollars for the stakeholders,” Kousser said. “So even though it’s a relatively new phenomenon, it shouldn’t come as a surprise.”
Streetscape opponent puts thousands in PAC
In Encinitas, a PAC called Public Safety Advocates has spent nearly $4,000 in support of District 3 incumbent Mark Muir and a corresponding amount against his opponent, Jody Hubbard. The same committee has spent $2,500 on a slate mailer in support of District 4 challenger Tony Brandenburg and against his opponent, incumbent Joe Mosca.
The mailers attack Hubbard and Mosca for their support of the North Coast Highway 101 Streetscape, which the California Coastal Commission recently unanimously approved.
The largest local contributor, according to campaign finance documents, is Encinitas resident Bob Hemphill. Hemphill is member of the Encinitas Residents Coalition, which has fought the city to block the streetscape, filing an appeal to the project to the Coastal Commission — which was recently rejected — and an ongoing lawsuit in Superior Court.
Hemphill has not returned calls and an email for comment.
Both Muir and Brandenburg oppose the streetscape. Muir voted against it, citing costs, and Brandenburg, a former planning commissioner, has railed against it in candidate forums.
Mayor Catherine Blakespear, who supports both Mosca and Hubbard, said that she was disappointed that Hemphill — who has financially supported her campaigns both this year and in the past — is funding opponents seemingly based on one issue, the streetscape.
“It’s unfortunate that someone is willing to put thousands of dollars into multiple elections because of one issue,” Blakespear said. “When we elect representatives, we elected them not just for one issue, but to make decisions on a broad base of issues.
“It’s an unfortunate turn in the way that decisions are made,” she said.
Kousser said that the amount of money that Hemphill has contributed speaks to the passion that he has on the streetscape issue.
“There are a number of people who get into politics because they are motivated by a single issue,” Kousser said. “Usually they use direct democracy to control the election, such as a ballot initiative, but if there is an issue that motivates them and they see this as the way they want to get the word out, there isn’t any fundamentally illegitimate about it.”
Another PAC, known as the North County Action Network, has made a total of over $10,000 in ads and signs for Blakespear, Mosca and Hubbard. The primary donors are Michael and Paula Verdu, who have long supported the trio and their positions on some of key topics in the race. That PAC’s warchest entering the final month of the race was nearly 10 times
Public Safety Advocates also received a $10,000 infusion from the Deputy Sheriff’s Association of San Diego County PAC and a $5,000 contribution from Cardiff-based Marino Construction. Randy Marino is listed as principal of the company. A call to his corporate number was not returned by the time of publication.
Developers pump thousands into San Marcos races
The Deputy Sheriffs Association PAC has received thousands from developers and the Building Industry Association of San Diego and has spent a corresponding amount on candidates throughout the county, almost exclusively on Republican or conservative candidates.
One of the races where the Deputy Sheriffs Association and Building Industry Association’s influence has been most heavily felt is San Marcos, where the PAC has spent thousands in mailers and campaign signs in favor of Rebecca Jones for mayor and council candidate Mike Sannella.
Many of the same individual contributors who have contributed to the Building Industry Association’s PAC and the Deputy Sheriffs committee have also contributed to an Irvine-based PAC called the California Taxpayers Coalition, which according to records has spent $10,500 in printing and mailing costs against one of Sannella’s opponents, Randy Walton.
One of the largest contributors to the Taxpayers Coalition is Diversified Projects, Inc., which has contributed $12,5000 to the committee. The Laguna Beach-based company was behind the controversial San Marcos Highlands project. Walton has aligned himself with Chris Orlando, current councilman and mayoral candidate, the lone council member to vote against the Highlands project.
One of the other major contributors is Lance Waite, who is developer behind the Sunshine Gardens project, a 193-unit multi-family project on 14.4-acres near San Marcos’ southeastern city limits that is currently being processed by the city.
Waite contributed $5,000 to each the Taxpayers Coalition and the Deputy Sheriffs PAC. Jones returned a $250 contribution Waite made to her campaign this year.
San Marcos bars developers from contributing to campaigns within 12 months of a council vote.
Walton, a registered Democrat, said the race has gotten ugly as a result of the mailers paid for, and said developers are actively trying to deceive voters by funneling money into committees that appear to be advocating for taxpayers or law enforcement.
“It’s an outright effort to deceive voters, by putting out mailers saying that something is ‘law enforcement’s choice,’ when in reality, it’s thousands of dollars from developers and the building industry,” Walton said. “Most voters don’t know to look at the campaign finance forms and see who is behind some of these committees.
“And on the other side, there isn’t a group of citizens forming PACs, so there is no countervailing weight and it’s kind of an unfair advantage to the candidates who benefit from them,” Walton said.
“San Marcos has very strict limits on contributions to candidates of just $250,” Jones said in an email to The Coast News. “At that level, it would be difficult for anyone to influence an elected official in our city. As for independent expenditures, they are just that — independent. I have no ability to control their activities and am legally prohibited from doing so.”
The third candidates in the mayor’s and Dist. 2 races, Bradley Zink and Eric Flodine, respectively, have not been the target of any independent expenditures, nor have any been raised on their behalf.
Kousser said that the pattern of developers who otherwise would not be able to contribute to the campaigns due to the city laws contributing even more money through the PACs raises ethical concerns from the donor, not the recipient.
“I would say that the pattern and timing of the donations shows a clear circumvention of the goal of the campaign finance limits,” Kousser said. “But there’s no proof that the candidate is influenced by these contributions. So while it’s not an ethical violation on behalf of the candidate, it looks like a donor is clearly trying to have the same effect on the election and make the same contribution through a different route.”