Around the Valley: Influencing elections | November 18, 2022 | Pleasanton Weekly | PleasantonWeekly.com |

Pleasanton Weekly

Column - November 18, 2022

Around the Valley: Influencing elections

by Gina Channell Wilcox

Taking a close look at San Ramon's 2022 candidate campaign finance filings set off alarm bells for me. It appears special interests and outside money are creeping in to influence local elections while drowning out the voice of the residents.

Sadly, this will probably be the last election in the city in which candidates will run for a seat on the dais without accepting money from special interest groups like developers, unions, political organizations and the like.

Big money from organizations with deep pockets and independent expenditures (IEs) from groups with an agenda make a difference in elections. This is well known and widely practiced.

Large contributions from outside groups have been happening at the county level for a while.

Hundreds of thousands of dollars have been funneled into Livermore elections for years.

But this is the first time, at least in recent memory, San Ramon candidates have received so much outside, special interest money. This and party affiliation seems to have contributed to the outcome in at least one, possibly two, races.

Around 85% of the roughly $156,560 total raised by all candidates (including loans and independent expenditures) came from special interest groups and organizations and individuals outside of the city.

Take, for example, San Ramon's District 4 race between parks commissioner Heidi Kenniston-Lee and Dublin San Ramon Services District Director Marisol Rubio.

Rubio reported contributions of about $25,200, with only $200 contributed by a San Ramon resident (who doesn't live in District 4). About $20,350 was contributed by individuals outside of the city, from special interest groups such as the Sheet Metal Workers, Plumbers and Teamsters unions and the San Ramon Valley Democratic Club. She also received an IE from the Democratic Party of Contra Costa County for "member communication," which means she also got the added benefit of party affiliation (even though a council race is non-partisan) and their mailing list.

Kenniston-Lee raised $5,880, primarily from San Ramon residents. She received no money from special interest groups and no independent expenditures.

As of Wednesday, Rubio was leading with 62.91% of the ballot count compared with Kenniston-Lee's 37.02%. Granted, there are still more than 110,000 countywide votes to count, but that margin is probably too wide to traverse for Kenniston-Lee.

The largest amount contributed to any San Ramon campaign was an IE supporting incumbent Mayor Dave Hudson totaling $60,000 from a PAC, the "Committee for Jobs," with money from Chevron, Phillips 66 and Marathon Oil, among others.

An independent expenditure is, basically, money spent on communication in support or opposition of a candidate without the approval of or coordination with the candidate. In fact, candidates by law cannot be involved in any way with an independent expenditure. Receiving IEs shouldn't reflect poorly on a candidate because they have no control over them.

The fact remains, though, IEs are made by organizations and individuals usually outside of a community in an attempt to influence elections.

(This is total speculation: Maybe the IE came in from oil producers because, as mayor, Hudson is on the Board of Directors at Bay Area Air Quality Management District.)

As of Wednesday, Hudson was at 50.26% of the vote for reelection, followed by outgoing Councilmember Sabina Zafar, who raised a little over $35,000, with 27.06% and challenger Dinesh Govindarao, who raised about $8,100, at 22.63%

The next largest category to contribute to San Ramon candidate campaigns were the special interest groups, which raised approximately $52,250. This is more than all the individual contributions by residents and outsiders combined.

In addition to Kenniston-Lee, District 2 candidate Mark Armstrong, who was appointed to the City Council when Hudson was elected mayor in 2020, did not receive contributions from special interest groups or IEs. He raised $8,480, and his opponent, Sara Lashanlo, raised slightly more, about $10,100.

Armstrong (with name recognition) secured a comfortable victory in his first campaign for election with 59.74% of the vote as of the latest count. Lashanlo was at 40.24%.

It is unfortunate grassroots support from residents does not overcome the name recognition that money and party affiliation can buy. (Not to mention how sad it is that some people vote on name recognition and party affiliation.)

That's not to say Rubio won't serve San Ramon well. I'm confident she will. I'm just bothered that outside groups, money and politics had such an obvious impact on a local, supposedly non-partisan election.

Editor's note: Gina Channell Wilcox has been the president and publisher of Embarcadero Media Group's East Bay Division since 2006. Her "Around the Valley" column runs the first and third Fridays of the month.

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