If you want a vision of California’s political future in 2022, consider San Diego a crystal ball.
On Tuesday, polls close in one of the most controversial of an unusual wave of special elections sparked by the “big resignation” of state lawmakers. A South San Diego Assembly seat opened up when progressive Lorena Gonzalez, a one-person factory of state-shaping and headline-making legislation, resigned in January to take the top job. raised in the California Labor Federation, the state branch of the AFL-DSI.
That left a surprising vacancy that organized labor groups and deep-pocketed business interests — the two political forces that regularly battle for the soul of the California Democratic Party — are eager to fill with their nominee of choice.
So far, the two Democratic candidates, Georgette Gómez and David Alvarez, have raised a total of more than $770,000 in direct contributions.
But even more, more than $1.2 million, was spent by independent spending committees — groups typically funded by big business and unions that aren’t subject to contribution limits that restrict fundraising efforts. candidate’s fund.
Where does all the special interest money come from?
In many cases, they are the usual suspects of the California election campaign. But contribution records filed with the state also include a few surprises, including the first sign of an aggressive new campaign strategy from ride-sharing giant Uber, as well as surprisingly large donations from a single towing company in Sacramento.
Gómez, a community organizer and former city council president who ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 2020, is the preferred candidate from labor, including teachers’ unions and the California Nurses Association. Gonzalez endorsed Gómez in early February. The state’s biggest business groups have backed Alvarez, a small-business owner who narrowly lost his 2014 San Diego mayoral race and shared the city council dais with Gómez.
At first glance, the stakes in Assembly District 80 are minor. The winner only gets the job until the end of the year. There are three candidates in Tuesday’s ballot, the other an unsung Republican. If no one receives more than 50% of the votes, a second round of the two best candidates will take place on June 7.
That day, the same three candidates, plus a second Republican, run in the new version of the district drawn by the state redistricting commission. The first two of this primary go in November. The eventual winner gets a full two-year term starting in January 2023.
But the race took on disproportionate proportions. And that’s only partly because the district was recently represented by the state’s best-known labor ally.
“We don’t want a seat held by a champion of workers to end up going to someone who is in the pocket of big business,” said Steve Smith, spokesman for the California Labor Federation. “But I think if we’re able to keep that seat and win here, I think that sets us up well for a number of other districts where we’ll have the same contrast.”
Unions and business interests are used to battling in Democratic races. For at least two decades, as the state’s Republican Party has fallen into near political irrelevance, workers and corporations have poured money into Democratic-leaning districts where the choice is not between the republican red and democrat blue, but moderate periwinkle and progressive navy. These are often the most expensive races in the state.
This year could be more important than most.
One reason: A staggering number of announced departures from the Legislative Assembly as longtime members are pushed back by term limits, step down in the face of unfavorable new district maps or seek offices higher in the political food chain. All that turnover will leave a 25-member hole in the state’s Democratic caucus. For interest groups concerned with what is happening under the dome of the state Capitol, this presents a rare opportunity to reshape California’s supermajority party and potentially influence state policy for years to come.
Marty Wilson, who heads campaign operations for the California Chamber of Commerce, called the Assembly race in San Diego an “attractive opportunity” for business interests who would like to see Gonzalez replaced with a friendlier type of Democrat. . But he also sees the race as a sort of warm-up scrum.
“It’s a sign of things to come,” he said.
Special interest money is pouring in
So far, both Democrats have amassed six-figure totals in direct donations to their campaign coffers. Gómez has raised nearly $470,000, much of it from his union allies. Alvarez has raised more than $300,000, with significant contributions from medical providers, real estate companies, oil companies and “gig economy” titans. Lincoln Pickard, a retired entrepreneur who is the GOP nominee in the race, reported no contributions.
Even more was spent by independent spending groups that aren’t bound by state campaign contribution limits (for a legislative campaign, that’s $4,900 from individuals and $9,700 from committees). More than $670,000 was spent to help Gómez or hurt Alvarez, while around $535,000 was spent to do the opposite.
These committees can spend as much as they want to promote or disparage anyone in the race, as long as they don’t communicate or coordinate with the candidates. In California politics, independent spending tends to play an outsized role in negative campaigns, leaving the candidates themselves with clean hands.
The largest spending committee to date, Georgette Gomez’s Nurses and Educators for Assembly 2022, is largely funded by the California Labor Federation and the Service Employees International Union.
On the other side, Alvarez’s biggest supporter is Keeping Californians Working, a committee funded by a wide variety of business interests. In early March, he received a $250,000 contribution from Uber Innovation’s political action committee.
Uber is no stranger to California politics. In 2020, the company spent nearly $60 million of its cash to promote Proposition 22, a successful ballot measure to overturn a state law drafted by Gonzalez that required gig companies to treat their employees as employees, not as independent contractors. The company also made direct contributions to candidates.
But Uber Innovation is a new policy initiative launched last year by the company with the aim of spending more on independent spending.
The state Chamber of Commerce sponsors two of the other biggest committees driving Alvarez. Records show the two have raised little this year, relying largely on funds received in the last two major election cycles from Uber, Lyft, San Diego-based energy company Sempra and tobacco giant Philip Morris. This year, the two committees received just one contribution, a $15,000 cash injection from Amazon.
The fourth most important spending committee in the race, and certainly the most mysterious, is called San Diego Families Opposing Georgette Gomez. The committee’s major funders are neither families nor San Diego. They include JobsPAC, one of the chamber’s affiliate committees; Californians for Jobs and a Strong Economy, another corporate-funded committee and regular campaign funder of moderate Democrats; a self-described real estate developer from southeast Los Angeles County who was twice fined by the state’s campaign finance watchdog while handling committee funds in other Southern California races; and the former mayor of West Covina.
But the biggest contributor to the committee by far, as Voice of San Diego first reported, is Ramos Towing, a towing company on the eastern outskirts of Sacramento. The company, through its owner Henry Ramos, contributed $49,500 to the anti-Gómez effort.
It is a significant sum. Under state law, if a single donor gives more than $50,000 to an independent spending committee, they are required to list that person or business as a “top donor” on their campaign materials. Ramos did not respond to phone and email requests for comment.
Gonzalez, the former incumbent, claimed it’s telling that while pro-Gómez spending is easy to identify as coming from organized labor, the funding and political organizing behind San Diego families opposing Georgette Gomez are much more opaque.
“If I were oilmen, landowners, big business and insurance companies, I’d probably be hiding too, because my district isn’t buying this,” she said.