Breaking down the outside spending in the district attorney’s race

San Diego County voters are being bombarded with mailers and commercials about the two candidates running for district attorney in the June election.

Political action committees can spend unlimited amounts of money from anywhere in the country to influence local elections.

One television ad shows interim District Attorney Summer Stephan standing in front of law books speaking to an audience. A mailer shows Deputy Public Defender Geneviéve Jones-Wright smiling as she talks to an older woman.

Many of these ads come with a little disclaimer tucked at the bottom of a flier or in the last few seconds of a video: “This advertisement was not authorized by a candidate.”

That means they are coming from one of the eight political action committees raising and spending money in the district attorney’s race. And the PACs are doing this campaigning without the candidates’ help or permission.

An inewsource analysis shows that so far more than $1,024,000 has been spent in the race through these independent expenditures — and that’s unusual in San Diego County politics.

Because some of the PACs spending money in the race are registered outside of San Diego County, their financial reports are kept as PDFs on the county registrar of voters website, but they’re not searchable and you can’t download them. To do its analysis of the money, inewsource found and examined dozens of these reports that have been filed since January 2017.

About $317,000 of the outside spending is supporting Stephan, including about $294,000 from the PAC sponsored by the Deputy District Attorneys Association.

But most of the outside spending is backing Jones-Wright. Four PACs have spent more than $706,000 to support her campaign. And about $629,000 of that money came directly from the California Justice & Public Safety PAC, which is exclusively funded by billionaire investor and philanthropist George Soros, to fund television commercials.

This chart shows outside spending by PACS in the district attorney’s race, as well as what both candidates have raised on their own.

The amount of outside spending in the race exceeds what the candidates have collectively raised for their own campaigns: $485,000 for Stephan and $205,000 for Jones-Wright.

And the independent expenditures can confuse voters, because people might not be able to tell whether they’re seeing messages from the candidates’ campaigns or from independent groups, said Jessica Levinson, a campaign finance expert and professor at Loyola Law School.

“We evaluate speech based on who’s talking to us,” Levinson said, so if people don’t “know who’s trying to sway their votes, I do think that’s a problem.”

“They’re not asking, ‘Why is this person telling me to vote for or against this candidate? What do they have at stake? What could they gain? What could they lose?,’” she said.

Both candidates told inewsource they appreciate the support they’re getting from PACs and are unconcerned that they can’t control the groups’ messages.

Stephan, who was appointed interim district attorney last year by the county Board of Supervisors, said the PAC money supporting her is “very different” than the PAC money supporting Jones-Wright.

“I don’t think it’s fair to characterize any support for me as outside money. I think that’s actually very inside money,” Stephan said. “That’s the people who are well invested for years in public safety and have committed to do this.”

District attorney candidate Summer Stephan.(Courtesy: Summer Stephan campaign)

On the Soros money that is helping her opponent, Stephan said, “That is a national kind of platform that is the vision of one man who happens to be extremely rich and can help fund an election easily and buy an election easily.”

She has the backing of the Deputy Sheriffs’ Association, which has spent more than $23,000 on signs, slate mailers and polling to support Stephan since March, as well as a PAC called Community Voices San Diego, which has spent $11,500 on social media advertising. The Community Voices PAC is sponsored by the Lincoln Club, which supports conservative political campaigns.

As for Jones-Wright, a federal PAC called Real Justice has spent $72,000 on calling, texting and emailing voters to support her. The PAC fundraises for district attorney candidates around the country who campaign for criminal justice reform. Also backing Jones-Wright is the Justice San Diego PAC, which has spent about $2,000 on door hangers, and the Get Out The Vote-San Diego PAC, which has spent about $2,200 on phone banks and online advertising.

District attorney candidate Geneviéve Jones-Wright.(Courtesy: Geneviéve Jones-Wright campaign)

“There’s no way I can knock on every single door. And so what the PACs have provided is a megaphone for my message,” Jones-Wright said. “It doesn’t interfere with anything in the race or the election process itself, except that it balances the playing field, whereas my opponent would be the only person we see with television ads. My opponent would be the only person who could use the advantage of the incumbency to appear on TV to make her way around the county.”

Since the first media buys from the Soros-funded PAC on May 3, the Stephan campaign and her supporters have responded with more media buys and fundraising. Stephan launched threattosandiego.com, a website describing Jones-Wright as the “anti-law enforcement candidate.” And a new PAC — Keep San Diego Safe in Support of Summer Stephan for District Attorney — formed on May 7, which now has $110,000 in the bank.

That PAC is sponsored by the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce, headed by former San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders. Sanders told inewsource that Soros’ spending persuaded the chamber to put its funds into the DA’s race.

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“Well, we were not necessarily going to get involved at first, but then we saw money outside of San Diego coming in and we thought we should probably get involved,” Sanders said.

“I’m talking about our board and management council. They were alarmed by the amount of money,” he said. “We were concerned about Summer. We thought she is an excellent choice for this role, she has a good reputation (and) she’s making a lot of changes in DA’s office already. If there’s a large expenditure out there, we wanted to get in and let people know we think she’s a good candidate.”

Because there are only two candidates in the district attorney’s race, whoever gets the most votes in the June 5 election will win a four-year term.

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About Jill Castellano:

Jill Castellano
Jill Castellano is an investigative reporter and data analyst for inewsource. To contact her with tips, suggestions or corrections, please email jillcastellano [at] inewsource [dot] org.