Follow the money in the races for DA and sheriff

inewsource data reporter Jill Castellano appeared Thursday on KPBS’ Midday Edition and talked about campaign spending in the San Diego County races for district attorney and sheriff. Read her Q&A with Midday Edition producer Michael Lipkin or listen to the conversation.



MICHAEL LIPKIN, HOST: This is KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Michael Lipkin, in for Maureen Cavanaugh. Campaign spending in the race for San Diego's district attorney is kicking into high gear. Last week saw record spending from a political group supporting the Democrat Geneviéve Jones-Wright in the race, and even more is expected before the June fifth primary. Investigative data reporter Jill Castellano at our partner inewsource has been tracking campaign spending in that race and nearly a dozen others. Welcome, Jill.

JILL CASTELLANO: Thank you for having me.

LIPKIN: So the campaign for district attorney has gotten a lot of attention this past week. Billionaire George Soros donated a lot of money to support deputy public defender, Geneviéve Jones-Wright, the Democrat. She's challenging interim DA Summer Stephan, the Republican. How much did Soros give?

CASTELLANO: So as of last week he spent $400,000 on Geneviéve Jones-Wright. And as of a couple of days ago, he spent another $200,000. So how this is working is that there is a PAC that he's donating a lot of money to. Since January, he's given over $1.8 million to that PAC, and he's the only person donating to that PAC. It's called California Justice & Public Safety. And that PAC spends a lot of money on the race to support Jones-Wright. So they're not donating money to her campaign, but they're spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on TV airtime, mailings, digital advertising, all these things that they think will help get her elected.

LIPKIN: So why is a wealthy New Yorker giving so much to a local DA race in San Diego County?

CASTELLANO: That's a great question. I think it might depend who you ask, but George Soros, you know, he's an 87-year-old Hungarian-American investor and hedge fund manager. He's worth more than $8 billion, and he's a philanthropist and since 2015 he's gotten himself involved in these local races. For example, last year he spent more than $1.5 million to support a civil rights lawyer in Philadelphia for this role of district attorney, and he ended up winning in a landslide. So he's known for supporting local district attorney candidates who call themselves progressive, who call themselves criminal justice reform advocates, all around the country in a way we've really never seen before. We see this kind of spending – outside spending – on a national level in Senate races and things like that. We don't really normally see this on a local level.

LIPKIN: So when you compare what the candidates themselves have raised, and you take a look at all of the money coming in from outside groups to these candidates, including this George Soros PAC and others that are supporting the Republican Summer Stephan, how do they compare the funding for both Geneviéve Jones-Wright and Summer Stephan?

CASTELLANO: I think the answer to that question will continue to change depending on the day you ask me because the money is flowing in so quickly. Every day I'm checking and there's another 30,000 here, another 100,000 there for each candidate on either side. For one thing, I can say that Jones-Wright total in her campaign has got about $200,000 raised so far compared to interim DA Summer Stephan who has about $485,000. So she's definitely in her own personal campaign's bank account has more money, but there's so much outside spending that it's kind of back and forth who's taking the lead on the spending. It kind of depends what day you ask. We know that Stephan has gotten a lot of support over $220,000 from the Deputy District Attorney's Association, which has gone, you know, all hands in to support her in this race against Jones-Wright.

LIPKIN: The other countywide race this year is for sheriff. What sort of fundraising have we seen for that – also a law enforcement position.

CASTELLANO: Yes. It's interesting and it has some comparisons because you have a more conservative sheriff already in place right now – Bill Gore, who's raised about $66,000 – and you have a challenger who's a more liberal kind of reform candidate, you could call him, Dave Myers who's raised about $61,000 since January. So they're kind of close and how much money they're bringing in right now, but Sheriff Bill Gore does have more money in the bank and he definitely has a ton of support from all these law enforcement agencies across the county that are funding his campaign.

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LIPKIN: When you're looking at all of these races, what are you hoping to learn from these campaign finance details?

CASTELLANO: So one thing you can learn is what races are competitive. You can see obviously the DA's race this year is competitive because it's raising a lot more money than you've typically seen historically. You can also see the kinds of strategies that the campaigns are using. So you could see the fact that for a while in the DA's race there were no media buys, there were no television ads. And then suddenly, right when the early voting began a couple of days ago, we saw a ton of media buys go in. So we can see the strategy of these campaigns. They recognize that now voters are looking at their ballots and thinking about who they're going to vote for and they should probably be on air. Their names should probably be out there so that way maybe when they're in the voting booth, they're going to pick the candidate that that PAC would prefer.

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We'll let you know when big things happen.

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