[sc_embed_player fileurl=”http://kpbs.media.clients.ellingtoncms.com/audio/2014/02/07/20140207-JY-FOLLOW_1.mp3″]To hear this story as it aired on KPBS radio, hit the play button.
If the business-backed Lincoln Club has a liberal foil this election, it’s Working Families for a Better San Diego, a committee established in September by organized labor.
The committee is responsible for the overwhelming majority of funds available to the pro-David Alvarez camp and has spent aggressively since the start of the race.
Until recently, it’s spent nearly all of its money — more than $2.4 million — on positive campaigning for Alvarez.
But an inewsource analysis of campaign finance records has found Alvarez’s allies in the labor movement have surpassed their conservative rivals in spending on negative advertising late in the campaign.
The committee, which is sponsored by the San Diego and Imperial Counties Labor Council, didn’t begin spending money against Kevin Faulconer until Jan. 21. But once they went on the offensive, they went all in, spending nearly $600,000 in a few short weeks on mailers, television ads and other expenditures critical of Faulconer.
In contrast, the Lincoln Club’s committee, Working Together for Neighborhood Fairness, spent a little more than $110,000 on mailers critical of Alvarez since Jan. 21. In the three weeks prior to that, it spent about $230,000 opposing Alvarez.
Richard Barrera, Secretary-Treasurer and CEO of the Labor Council, said that his organization had to respond to what he described as distortions of Alvarez’s records and statements, pointing in particular to a Lincoln Club mailer claiming that Alvarez was planning to direct community development funds to only a select group of poor, minority-heavy neighborhoods.
Those funds are designed for primarily low- and moderate-income neighborhoods, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
“That is probably the most misleading of all the misleading ads they’ve put out against David,” Barrera said.
“What we’ve done is a mix of positive pieces about David and pieces clarifying Kevin’s record,” said Barrera, who argued that Faulconer was attempting to hide a conservative voting record while on city council.
One Club, two committees
The Lincoln Club — long-viewed as the voice of San Diego’s politically-active business community — was a big spender in the primary campaign.
It spent nearly $440,000 between September and the primary on Nov. 19 to attack former state assemblyman Nathan Fletcher, who ultimately placed third. In contrast, the club spent only about $14,000 supporting Faulconer.
Many political observers at the time believed the Lincoln Club’s desire was to see Faulconer face Alvarez — viewed as a weaker candidate — in the runoff.
But that victory came at a cost to the Lincoln Club.
A public spat erupted between Qualcomm CEO Paul Jacobs and the Lincoln Club’s chairman, Bill Lynch, over a club mailer suggesting that Fletcher, as a state assemblyman, supported a tax break favorable to Qualcomm, while voting to increase taxes on Qualcomm’s competitors. The mailer said he was then given a “$400,000 no-show job” after he left Sacramento. One Lincoln Club member published an open letter on Voice of San Diego saying that he’d quit the organization because of the way they attacked Fletcher.
Since the runoff began, the Lincoln Club has continued to invest in the race but at a more modest pace. It has spent $40,000 since the start of January on signs, internet advertising and social media to send positive messages about Faulconer.
In December, the club formed its new committee, Working Together for Neighborhood Fairness in Opposition to David Alvarez for Mayor. It wasted little time in living up to its name. Since the start of the year, the committee has spent at least $340,000 hammering Alvarez in mailers.
Through a spokesman, Lynch declined to explain why the club felt the need to establish a separate committee to take over the bulk of negative campaigning in the runoff.
Vladimir Kogan, author of “Paradise Plundered: Fiscal Crisis and Governance Failures in San Diego,” said the well-publicized blowback during the primary was likely only a small part of the Lincoln Club’s decision to distance itself from negative campaigning.
“I think the kinds of people that would know what the Lincoln Club is are probably smart enough to look through this and realize that these are basically the same entity,” said Kogan. “It’s probably a combination of some strategic decisions incorporating the regulations governing these kinds of contributions and the reputational worries of the Lincoln Club.”
If the hope of all these transfers of funds was to conceal the true originator of hard-hitting negative advertising, it doesn’t appear to be working so well.
On Tuesday, the Courage Campaign — a liberal political advocacy group funded in part by some of the same labor unions that have supported Alvarez’s campaign — held a protest outside the office of the Lincoln Club’s treasurer.
They were upset at a recent mailer they viewed as racist, in their opinion depicting Alvarez as a gang member. The ad was produced by Working Together for Neighborhood Fairness.
Negativity is still big business, however. Why? Because it works, say experts.
“If you look at what the research finds, it finds — I think overwhelmingly — that negative ads are far more effective than positive ads,” said Kogan, an assistant professor of political science at Ohio State University.
Where’s the money coming from?
The more than $3.6 million collected by Working Families for a Better San Diego has come nearly exclusively from unions and union-funded organizations.
Funding sources for the Lincoln Club and Working Together for Neighborhood Fairness are more varied but include reliably conservative sectors such as the developer, restaurant and hospitality industries as well as local conservative luminaries such as U-T San Diego publisher Douglas “Papa Doug” Manchester.
A notable recurring contributor to the Lincoln Club has been the San Diego County Republican Party.
Between September and the end of 2013, the party contributed more than $180,000 to the Lincoln Club, nearly 19 percent of all funds raised by the club between July 1 and the end of last year. It was shortly after its first contribution in mid-September that the club began its expensive and controversial campaign against Fletcher.
Political party committees such as the San Diego County Republican Party can make unlimited independent expenditures just like the Lincoln Club. Independent expenditures are funds spent supporting or opposing candidates that are not coordinated with any candidate’s campaign.
But the local Republican Party hasn’t done that. With the exception of a lone $300 spent on “video production,” the county GOP’s political committee has not made independent expenditures on behalf of Kevin Faulconer. Nor has the GOP made independent expenditures opposing David Alvarez or Nathan Fletcher before him.
So, why didn’t the GOP simply hang onto its $180,000 and use those funds to design and implement its own campaign targeting Fletcher and, later, Alvarez?
San Diego County Republican Party Chairman Tony Krvaric said the party always weighs its options when making decisions about contributions and expenditures.
“Sometimes, we do things ourselves,” Krvaric said. “Sometimes, if somebody else is doing a good job, we may want to contribute to that.”
When asked whether that meant the county GOP approved of the job the Lincoln Club and its new committee are doing in their campaign against Alvarez, Krvaric was emphatic.
“Absolutely,” he said.
Last summer, San Diego’s city council adopted a $20,000 per-election (with the primary and runoff counting as separate elections) cap on contributions from political parties to candidates. The county Democratic party has already reached the limit. The Republican party is about $2,000 away.
Unlike the county GOP, however, the Democratic Party has not made any contributions to independent committees like Working Families for a Better San Diego.
Francine Busby, chairwoman of the San Diego County Democratic Party said that the party has a policy of not giving to independent political committees.
“Our policy in San Diego is to use the funds we receive in support of our candidates, member communications and getting out the vote,” said Busby. “We use our funds to educate and turn out Democrats. That’s what our mission is.”
Krvaric said the unions have enough of their own money.
“They don’t have to give to union [committees] because they [unions] have enough money on their own,” said Krvaric, repeating the fact — oft-noted by the Faulconer campaign — that about 85 percent of the contributions to pro-Alvarez independent committees have come from unions and union-backed organizations.
“The fundraising mechanism is much broader on the Republican side,” Krvaric said.
Kogan, the OSU political science professor, said that while Republican candidates do tend to raise more money through individual contributors, that’s primarily because most wealthier voters are Republicans.
And even then, it’s not so simple.
“That being said, most Republican money still comes from a small number of sources,” said Kogan. “The realtors, restaurant associations and really kind of the development community — the contractors.”
Those familiar with San Diego politics say that regardless of where the money is coming from or the paths it must take to reach its ultimate destination, it will always find its way.
“It’s like water, right?” said Krvaric. “You put a rock somewhere and the water just goes around.”