Decision 2010: Small town, big money
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“On April 1, MAYOR JOHNSON AND VICE MAYOR DEHAAN VOTED TO SPEND NEARLY $600,000 OF TAXPAYER DOLLARS FOR AN OVERPAID BUREAUCRAT WHEN THE JUNE 2009 GENERAL FUND DEFICIT WAS OVER $21 million dollars,” a full-size mailer announced to Alameda voters this week.
The mailer’s return address belongs to a political consulting firm whose client list boasts a number of prominent Republican politicians, and it says it is paid for by Taxpayer Network, a nonprofit whose board members include a former Republican Congressman from Indiana and a pair of prominent Republican divorce attorneys from Orange County.
The mailer is the latest in a series of attack pieces hitting the mailboxes and telephones of Alameda voters, who may never conclusively know who paid for it, thanks to federal rules that shield the identity of the group’s contributors and members.
“Because the Taxpayer Network does not advocate the election or defeat of any candidate, it is not required to file campaign reports or disclose the names of its members and donors,” the group’s website says. “Taxpayer Network does file tax returns, but those returns are not subject to public disclosure.”
The group’s website says its goal is to “educate the public about the policies and policy-makers involved in issues of taxation, spending and regulation of the economy.” Its treasurer, Bruce Hughes, did not return a call seeking comment for this story.
Late Tuesday, the site featured television ads attacking U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer’s record. Boxer is in a tight re-election race against former Hewlett-Packard Chief Executive Officer Carly Fiorina. One of the Taxpayer Network’s mailers attacking Johnson touts the goals of the city’s Sunshine Task Force, something that came as a surprise to the leader of that group.
“I think this is a breach of ethics. And I wanted to let you know the task force had nothing to do with this,” the task force’s chair, Gretchen Lipow, told the City Council on Tuesday night.
To be sure, in prior elections Alameda has not been immune to dirty campaigning, or to anonymous attacks. Johnson, one of the targets of the Taxpayer Network mailer, was also targeted in a 2002 mailer when she ran for mayor that depicted her as a puppet, with developers pulling the strings. But she said this election is different.
“That was not the kind of money that is being spent in this election,” Johnson said.
In addition to Taypayer Network mailers attacking Johnson and deHaan and praising Councilwoman Lena Tam for her support of local firefighters, voters have been bombarded by robocalls – including a four-question push poll attacking Matarrese and another robocall featuring a stuttering Johnson. Reporters here at The Island have also received handmade flyers questioning Matarrese’s progressive credentials and accusing deHaan of being racist (with the deHaan flyer containing details of a recent voter poll that have not been released to the public).
No one has claimed responsibility for the calls or flyers.
Matarrese and Johnson have said publicly that they believe SunCal is behind the attacks, saying the company’s former chief operating officer, Frank Faye, threatened to get involved in the election if they didn’t vote to keep SunCal on as master developer after their exclusive agreement to negotiate a development deal with the city expired in July.
Johnson said that David McIntosh, the former Congressman who is listed on the Taxpayer Network’s website as a member of its board, is a partner in the Washington, D.C. office of Mayer Brown, the law firm that employs former state Assembly speaker Robert Hertzberg, who worked as a consultant for SunCal in Alameda.
The company’s spokesman, David Soyka, did not respond to a direct question from a reporter Tuesday afternoon asking if SunCal was giving money to the Taxpayer Network. But in an earlier e-mail exchange, he expressed disappointment that campaign spending was an issue.
“It’s too bad people aren’t talking about the issues rather than us,” Soyka said.
A U.S. Supreme Court decision handed down in January, Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission, equated corporate speech with individual speech, a move some feared would unleash a flood of corporate cash into the electoral realm. And 501(c)4s – non-profits that can legally get involved in elections, as long as campaigning isn’t their main purpose – provide companies the opportunity to pump cash into political campaigns, without anybody knowing.
“They basically can trash anybody they want,” said Robert Brem, chair of the College of Alameda’s politics program.
Brem said he wouldn’t be surprised if corporate money was being spent on Alameda’s election. “All politics is local,” he said. “You can win on a national level. But if a local city council votes down your zoning – that’s why the issue of money is so important.”
A SunCal spokesperson said earlier this month that the company, which sent out mailers and aired television ads attacking Interim City Manager Ann Marie Gallant, was focusing its efforts on Gallant and that they weren’t involved in Alameda’s election. But this week they confirmed that Argent Management LLC, a new SunCal affiliate run by several of SunCal’s former senior execs, had sent contribution checks to local candidates.
“Throughout our history in community development we contribute to candidates in election years, because we think it’s important that the candidates are able to reach out to the voters. We think the candidates need to be heard,” said SunCal spokesman David Soyka.
Soyka said Argent sent checks to all the local candidates. But five of the local council and mayoral candidates contacted by The Island – candidates who hadn’t been critical of SunCal during their time on the Island – said they never received a check from Argent, while candidates who have been critical of the developer – including deHaan and Matarrese – said they did.
DeHaan said his check, which he didn’t cash, came in a handwritten envelope with a bogus local address that was adorned with a smiley-face sticker and the words “good luck.”
“I do feel they tried to pull a fast one on us,” said Jean Sweeney, a council candidate who said she inadvertently cashed a check from Argent but would be paying it back. “What a trick.”
Even candidates who could be expected to benefit from the mailers and other election media have expressed concerns about them because they sidestep the careful messaging candidates do for their campaigns. Lena Tam, who was featured in a Taxpayer Network mailer that praised her for her support of local firefighters, said she had no idea the mailer was coming and doesn’t know who paid for it. Firefighters who were pictured in the ad as they attended a press conference for Tam at City Hall said the same, adding that they hadn’t given permission for their photo to be used.
“It’s very frustrating,” Tam said. “I obviously am trying to run a campaign based on my record on the City Council and what I believe in.”