Where Los Angeles’ Political Candidates Get ‘Free Money’

The city’s matching funds program is meant to level the playing field for less-affluent candidates who want to run in city elections—and to give small donations more power

On Monday Rob Wilcox, who is running for City Controller, held a “Fall Campaign Kick-Off” fundraiser. The late afternoon event on the outdoor patio of a West L.A. restaurant drew a crowd of enthusiastic supporters who want him to be Los Angeles’ next fiscal watchdog. The primary election is in June 2022.

Wilcox, who currently is the director of Community Engagement and Outreach for City Attorney Mike Feuer, and who previously served as Deputy Controller under former Controller Laura Chick, was certainly seeking backing from those who could donate $1,500, the maximum individual amount allowed, to his campaign. But there was an additional monetary motive: He was also looking for small donations specifically from city residents.

This wasn’t only because of the old adage that any amount helps. Rather, even donations as small as $5 can unlock another vital revenue stream: city matching funds. If Wilcox gets enough of them, he could ultimately receive $428,000 for his campaign. If he reaches the November 2022 runoff, another $482,000 will be available.

That’s money immediately infused into a candidate’s war chest, without having to spend untold hours locked in a room, dialing for dollars and unleashing the same script in the effort to get friends, acquaintances, and business associates to write a check.

“This is the ultimate leveling of the playing field, especially for average Angelenos who cannot easily donate $1,500. Their $200 means almost the same as that $1,500,” said Wilcox. “The donor has the same influence, because they live in the city of Los Angeles, as a Sacramento lobbyist or a Wall Street executive. And that’s a game changer.”

Wilcox is not exaggerating. For those who meet all the standards, the city will hand out $6 in public money for each matchable $1 of a qualified donation. This means that a $214 contribution for a candidate for city office (Mayor, City Attorney or Controller) nets another $1,284. Add it to the original and it’s $1,498, or just $2 under the individual max.

The math is similar for those running for city council. A qualified $114 contribution generates a $684 match; together that’s $798, or just under the $800 maximum donation allowed in a council contest.

City Council candidates can get up to $161,000 in free money for the primary, and $201,000 if they make the runoff. City Attorney and Controller aspirants can notch in the vicinity of $500,000 for each race. The really big money flows in the mayoral contest; qualified candidates can receive just over $1 million for the primary, and the two who advance to the runoff can each get almost $1.3 million.

Michael Trujillo, a Democratic strategist working on the campaigns of multiple candidates for city office next year, including District 15 councilman and mayoral hopeful Joe Buscaino, described the funds as a vital part of crafting an election strategy.

“When you do your analysis, you’re baking into the cake that you’re going to get $1.1 million in the primary,” said Trujillo. “It lets you plan in a way that has you putting together a comprehensive race.”

The matching funds program was created to make a more level playing field for less-affluent candidates and, as the Ethics Commission website states, “to promote public participation in the electoral process by increasing the value of small contributions.”

The city doesn’t just give money to anyone who asks. A series of strict standards must be met. Candidates must actually qualify for the ballot—one reason the money doesn’t flow until next February or March—and must agree to appear in a debate. A candidate who runs unopposed can’t receive matching funds. Nor can someone who loans their campaign more than a certain amount—the ceiling is $37,000 in a council race, and $148,100 for those running for citywide office.

Extensive financial documentation is required, and the matchable portion of any donation is capped—just that first $114 for a council hopeful, and $214 for a citywide candidate. Anything above that goes into the bank account, but doesn’t spark additional city giving.

The matching funds program has been around since 1993, but big changes were made in 2019. That was when the City Council backed an Ethics Commission move to increase the amount dispensed (the match was previously four-to-one or less), and lower the threshold to get the money. Now council candidates have to raise $11,400 in private donations to qualify; previously it was $25,000. The level for City Attorney and Controller aspirants is $32,100 (down from $75,000), and the mayoral requirement is $75,000 (lowered from $150,000).

Citywide candidates also need donations of at least $5 from 100 city residents. Those running for a council seat must secure 100 donations from district inhabitants.

Trujillo said that a council candidate who qualifies for full matching funds will likely have raised at least $130,000 to $150,000.

“Now you’re looking at a $300,000 budget, and a $300,000 budget is a legit campaign in any district,” he said. “With digital advertising being relatively cheap, and the number of impressions you can buy now, you can create a real campaign with a storyline and name ID for that amount of money in any district.”

There are plenty of uses for the money, everything from mailers to lawn signs to polling to campaign consultants. Trujillo said that candidates also rely on the funds arriving at a certain time, knowing for example, where to allocate resources when mail-in ballots start arriving.

Wilcox said matching funds are particularly helpful for first-time candidates running against officeholders with connections to donors who can max out. He also thinks it is especially useful in a race for City Controller, an office many people don’t even know exists.

While he likes the opportunity the matching funds program creates, he appreciates something else that comes from spurring more people to contribute, even at lower amounts.

“Ultimately what it does is it frees you from the special interests,” Wilcox said, “that you answer not only at the ballot box to the public, but now you answer to the public because they have an interest in your campaign, and they’re buying in to this election. They are now going to be stakeholders.”

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