Livermore pioneered contribution limits decades ago when slow-growth (being polite) residents were concerned that developers would simply buy elections with their money fueling campaigns. So, the City Council adopted a $100 limit per person. That was increased to $250 in 2004 to account for inflation.
For the last decade, friends have started to dominate the Livermore political scene with huge expenditures for its favored candidates. Those running without the group’s support have struggled to raise enough money to be competitive.
Historically, the group has been a strong supporter of urban growth boundaries and limited housing growth. In last decade, it has focused on the downtown, trying to bring the 2,200-seat performing arts theater to Livermore until Gov. Jerry Brown killed redevelopment agencies and wiped out the financing in 2012.
It continues to push strongly for its vision for the former Luckys parking lot where the big theater would have been built.
According to Denis Cuff’s article in a recent East Bay Times, the friends spent nearly $214,000 in the last municipal election. Assistant Treasurer Jean King, one of the largest donors, told Cuff that “it’s expensive to communicate with voters.”
Consider that total beside the average of $7,500 that the was the average for the six candidates in the race. As Councilman Steve Spiedowski pointed out, it cost about $15k for a mailer in Livermore. Of course, those candidates back by the friends do not need to worry about getting their message out—the PAC will take care of it for them.
For those opposed by the friends, good luck. In the last election, incumbent council members Laureen Turner and Stewart Gary were targeted. Gary had received friends’ support when he was first elected, while Turner won mounting an independent campaign.
With friends turning against Gary, the group mounted campaign attacking Gary and Turner for their positions about downtown development and supporting challengers Bob Coomber and Bob Darling.
Rejecting Gary’s reelection is not unusual for these folks. Mayor John Marchand, who consistently has been supported by them, told paper that they’re coming after him in November.
The major donors are King and Lynn Seppala, the husband of Independent newspaper publisher Joan Seppala. They contributed $122k, more than half of the funds spent in 2014. When it comes to downtown and issues that Joan cares about, the paper is a house organ for the friends. On other issues, it provides more balanced coverage.
Surprisingly, all five council members, who of whom were backed by the friends, favored the elimination of the individual campaign limits. The ordinance was approved 3-0 this week with Mayor Marchand in Washington D.C. and Councilman Bob Coomber was excused.
Whether that will make a difference could be seen this fall if strong candidates emerge with fresh viewpoints and can raise support. The current split over downtown plans, with community leaders on both sides, could set the stage for that. Although, running money through an “independent” political action group may still be a better alternative for opponents of the friends.
The next step for the council, as it reforms elections, is to implement online reporting requirements for campaigns. Currently, anyone interested in knowing who support the friends or an individual candidate, must go to City Hall to pull the documents. That’s absurd for a city that has two national laboratories, a technology incubator and prides itself on its technology.