Many people decry the influence of money in local elections, arguing that large donations make politicians beholden to everyone from housing developers to labor leaders, and put special interest groups above constituents in the municipal pecking order.
People with that perspective are going to be seething at some of the huge sums pouring into the campaign coffers of candidates for city offices in 2022 (the primary is in June). The latest round of fundraising and spending figures, for the first six months of 2021, were recently posted on the website of the City Ethics Commission.
Much can be gleaned from the disclosures, though the most important things to remember are: 1. This is still the early stage, and many Angelenos don’t even know they will be voting for mayor and other posts next year, and 2. Money matters, but ultimately votes are the only thing that count. Los Angeles is littered with the corpses of highly financed campaigns that died at the ballot box.
Here is part one of a deep dive into local fundraising.
Twenty-eight people have filed documents with the Ethics Commission to raise money for the race to succeed Eric Garcetti, who is termed out next year. Most of them will likely never make the ballot, and only City Attorney Mike Feuer and Councilman Joe Buscaino have raised more than $15,000. How you see their financial standing depends on which spin doctor you like. There are three main threads:
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Joe on the Go: Although Buscaino has been on the City Council since 2011, he is relatively unknown outside his base of San Pedro. The District 15 rep must boost his name ID, and he is doing what is necessary: A half-million dollars would have been impressive, but he blew past that milestone, and pulled in a whopping $818,000 in just two-and-a-half months after announcing his candidacy. As of June 30 he had nearly $700,000 in cash on hand. I shiver when I think of how many cell phones he had working when making fundraising calls, and fear that his wife and kids didn’t see him for weeks as he disappeared into a dial-for-dollars cave.
His disclosure form is chocked with hundreds of $1,500 checks (the maximum individual amount) written by everyone from attorneys and real estate players to Avengers directors Joe and Anthony Russo. Which raises the question: Could we see a special-effects laden Avengers: Age of Buscaino ad?
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Feuer Factor: The City Attorney has raised $721,000 since launching his campaign in March 2020, and though the $303,000 he secured in the first six months of the year is well below Buscaino’s haul, and also south of the $402,000 he garnered in the latter half of 2020, with $571,000 in cash on hand he can run a potent campaign. Feuer fans will also point out that with two successful citywide victories, his need for cash to introduce himself to Angelenos is not as high as other candidates. That said, he will want to amp up his take in the current fundraising period, which closes at the end of the year.
Feuer also touts copious max donations, and as with his first fundraising period, he received a truckload of checks from attorneys. Actor Ed Begley gave Feuer $500, as did the political action committee for the Recording Industry Association of America. So if Buscaino gets an ad, will Feuer benefit a star-studded campaign song?
Coming Up Next: Feuer and Buscaino are well positioned, but their war chests won’t scare off competitors. Political observers are eagerly awaiting possible candidacies from Council President Nury Martinez, council members Mark Ridley-Thomas and Kevin de León, and developer Rick Caruso. There is also talk of Congresswoman Karen Bass entering the race. Any of those players could raise a huge amount of money fast. In other words, view the current figures as just a snapshot of the race almost ten months before election day.
City Attorney Scratch
City Attorney is the second-highest elected post in Los Angeles. The contest is drawing a crowd, and five people are well into six figures in terms of fundraising.
The highest tally in the recent reporting period belongs to Faisal Gill, a civil rights attorney who moved to Los Angeles from Vermont in 2018. However, his $513,000 comes with an asterisk the size of Saturn: Financial reports show that he loaned his campaign $325,000, and his disclosure form lists 153 donations in the last six months, far fewer than four other people running for the seat. That said, when it comes to paying for polling and slick mailers, no one cares where the money comes from, only that it exists, and Gill has $451,000 in cash on hand, more than anyone else in the race.
Pull personal loans out of consideration, and the most active fundraiser in the period was Kevin James, who spent eight years as president of the Los Angeles Board of Public Works (he now works as an attorney). James, who is tight with Garcetti, pulled in $314,000, with max donations from the Los Angeles Dodgers and Rams, as well as Jeffrey Katzenberg and Desperate Housewives showrunner Marc Cherry (among many others). He boasts checks from a coterie of attorneys, entertainment industry players, and a batch of labor unions.
Attorney and nonprofit chair Teddy Kapur has $327,000 in cash on hand after raising $209,000 in the first half of the year (his overall total includes $75,000 in personal loans). Like everyone seeking to be the city’s top lawyer, he has ample support from working attorneys. He also has a notable number of smaller-amount donations.
Lesser but still sizable amounts belong to attorney Hydee Feldstein Soto ($236,000 raised, including a $25,000 loan), who has a varied base of donors, and Marina Torres, an Assistant U.S. Attorney whose $154,000 in the last six months gives her $285,000 (with a $15,000 loan)—once again, her donor roster features a hefty number of practicing lawyers, and she also has a sizable number of small donations.
Ultimately, the financial tallies are fairly close, and no one has the cash now to be considered either the clear frontrunner or a non-factor.
City Controller Cash
People overlook the job of City Controller. They shouldn’t. The position provides an opportunity to serve as the taxpayers’ fiscal watchdog. This is also a race where money is not necessarily paramount; in 2013, Ron Galperin was outspent by then-Councilman Dennis Zine. It’s 2021, and Galperin has been Controller for eight years.
In the 2022 race another councilman, District 5 rep Paul Koretz, has a big financial lead, as the $165,000 he raised in the first half of the year gives him $326,000 in total (including $51,000 in loans). He’s got max contributions from unions representing carpenters and airport police officers, among others, and another $1,500 from the owner of landmark L.A. eatery Pink’s—insert your own hot dog joke here.
He is trailed by David Vahedi, whose $62,000 haul in the recent reporting period brings him to $167,000. That figure includes loaning his campaign $93,500, according to Ethics Commission filings.
Two other candidates should not be dismissed. CPA Kenneth Mejia, who previously ran for Congress, has a total of $85,000, and the $62,000 he raised in the last six months includes hundreds of donations of $100 or less, meaning people can give much more before being maxed out. Mejia is also part of a progressive crowd that is growing increasingly active in local campaigns.
Rob Wilcox has $32,000, but he launched his campaign less than one month before the reporting deadline, and he has numerous connections to donors through his current job as Feuer’s director of community engagement and outreach; he also served as deputy city controller under former Controller Laura Chick. The current reporting period will be telling for Wilcox.
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