San Leandro scuttles campaign finance reforms

San Leandro Councilmember Pete Ballew

A nearly year-long push to bring a cap on individual campaign contributions in San Leandro fizzled Monday night. The proposal by Councilmember Victor Aguilar, Jr. to remedy growing instances of developers pouring large amounts of contributions into city council campaigns was first introduced last February.

San Leandro beatThumbnail discussions on potential reforms were heard in the council’s rules committee on the three occasions last year. The city clerk’s office was seeking further direction on how to proceed Monday night.

But, for an item heard several times in committee, the campaign finance proposal laid out in a city staff report was shockingly bereft of any details, down to its scope, implementation, and enforcement. Meanwhile, the council’s direction was stern. That status quo is perfectly fine.

“Ordinances against having maximums are toothless,” Councilmember Pete Ballew said. “Even if you could enforce it, there’s too many ways around it.” Contributors, he continued, could bundle several maximum donations with family members to circumvent any finance limits.

However, the scenario Ballew described is a crime and exactly the scheme used by Tri-Valley developer James Tong to help fund Rep. Eric Swalwell congressional campaigns in 2012 and 2014. Tong was convicted last October in federal court on two counts of illegal campaign contributions.

There are developers that come in and donate to a lot of our campaigns. That kind of beholdens the council to certain projects in the pipeline.-San Leandro Councilmember Victor Aguilar, Jr.

Ballew then quickly motioned to close the discussion and not move forward with any campaign finance reforms. The council sided with Ballew, voting, 6-1, to scuttle any campaign finance reforms for the near future in San Leandro. Aguilar was the lone no vote.

Earlier, Aguilar proposed limiting individual contributions to $250 per year. “We need to have campaign contribution limits in order to level the playing field,” he said. “There are developers that come in and donate to a lot of our campaigns. That kind of beholdens the council to certain projects in the pipeline.”

The impetus for campaign finance reform in San Leandro followed the 2018 mayoral campaign in which a member of the council slate that included Aguilar railed against the unfettered fundraising power of fellow mayoral candidate and current councilmember Benny Lee. A major talking point for the slate was to highlight the amount of contributions pouring in from developers to the campaigns of incumbents.

A notable campaign flyer created by the slate depicted Tom Silva, a San Leandro developer, as a puppetmaster controlling the councilmembers. Aguilar was the only member of the slate to win an election two years ago.

Fresh Clean slate ad.JPG

“I think one of the reasons why this has been brought up, in this past elections, I did fundraise quite a bit,” Lee said. “But honestly, 80 percent of my contributions came from folks that never came before the council.” Ballew made a similar comment, arguing he has routinely voted against projects backed by developers who had given his campaign money.

Ballew is up for re-election in 2020, as is Councilmember Ed Hernandez. In 2016, Ballew won the open District 7 seat in 2016 while running unopposed. There is no viable candidate known to be interested in challenging Ballew in the fall. But his strong opposition to cannabis could make him susceptible to a challenger supported by the local cannabis industry. Hernandez is facing the prospects of a rematch against Bryan Azevedo.

Six cities in Alameda County have restrictions on campaign finance contributions. They include Oakland, Berkeley, Hayward, Dublin, Fremont, and Union City.

The Alameda County Board of Supervisors have an exorbitant $40,000 individual cap on campaign contributions. The impetus of which was former state Senate Pro Tem Leader Bill Lockyer transferring over $2 million of his campaign funds into his wife Nadia Lockyer’s successful bid for county supervisor in 2010.

Regardless of Monday night’s decision, San Leandro, will soon be subject to a new state law that comes into effect in January 2021 that limits individual contributions to $4,700 per election cycle. Gov. Gavin Newsom signed the bill last October. It covers cities like San Leandro that have no contributions limits on their books.