The real estate industry and a shadowy special interest group is pumping tens of thousands of dollars into the Mountain View City Council election, causing alarm amongst candidates and residents who fear this election will mark the end of low-budget City Council campaigns.
"It's very frustrating to be the candidate in a situation where something is out of your control," said candidate Ken Rosenberg, who said he was surprised to see his own photo on mailers that have been sent to residents in support of his campaign. Some are from the National Association of Realtors, and others are from a Long-Beach based group called the "Neighborhood Empowerment Coalition" (NEC).
He said to those behind the mailers, with whom he is legally prohibited from coordinating: "Please no negative ads. If these start going negative then we've entered a different era of Mountain View politics."
The NEC has also sent out mailers supporting candidates Ellen Kamei and Pat Showalter, spending over $60,000 as of Oct. 21. The National Association of Realtors has also spent $26,000 on mailers and polling in support of Rosenberg.
Though the mailers are outside of their control, the candidates have been facing intense criticism about them in various online forums. Candidate Mercedes Salem said residents should "stand up" against the independent expenditures and "say you can't buy an election in our town" by not voting for any candidate benefiting from the controversial mailers.
Rosenberg, who has built his reputation as a member of the city's human relations commission, has been outspoken against fears the he's been bought off. Over $50,000 has been independently spent to help elect him.
"People think this is going to influence my vote when I get on the City Council," Rosenberg said. "I think that is patently ridiculous."
It is unclear exactly who provided the impetus for the NEC mailers, but the clearest connection appears to be to the California Apartment Association (CAA), which represents landlords. The CAA has given the NEC at least $5,000, according to a June finance report filed with the state. The CAA has also endorsed and directly contributed to the campaigns of Kamei, Showalter and Rosenberg, all of whom have expressed opposition to rent control. Landlords have also been highly involved in past elections to prevent adoption of a rent control ordinance in Mountain View.
"Independent expenditures are an allowable form of communication and totally independent from any campaign," said Kamei. "We received the mail from NEC at the same time as Mountain View residents. I also am not familiar with NEC at all."
"Under our Fair Political Practices Commission rules, it is illegal for the candidate or an associated committee to have anything to do with the production of these mailers," said candidate Pay Showalter. "They need to be truly independent in order to be legal. The photos they used of me are ones that are readily available on Facebook or my website. It's the same with the information. The first time I learned anything about this mailer was when I saw it yesterday in our mail. I had no knowledge of its production or distribution."
Records show that the NEC has also collected funds from several Indian tribes, Pacific Gas & Electric, unions representing boilermakers and ship builders, and DMV contractor Motor Vehicle Software Corporation. Landlords aside, PG&E is the only other group listed that appears to have an interest in Mountain View.
PG&E gave the NEC at least $7,500 and may have an interest in preventing "Community Choice Aggregation" (CCA), which allows residents to collectively buy energy from other, cleaner sources in competition with PG&E. On his website, Rosenberg says he supports CCA, and that he was passed over for PG&E's endorsement because of it.
As of Oct. 21, the NEC spent a total of $27,789 on mailers for Rosenberg, $15,505 on mailers for Showalter, and $19,242 on mailers for Kamei.
Representatives of CAA were not able to comment by press time. PG&E spokesperson Lyndsey Paulo said PG&E gave to the NEC with the understanding that "funds could be spent as the committee sees fit to further its goals." She refused to confirm or deny that PG&E has opposed CCA, saying only that "we absolutely respect the energy choices our customers have. We will continue to cooperate with local governments" that are interested in CCA.
The influx of outside money appears to be a first for a Mountain View City Council election, as local groups such as city employee unions have been the only big independent spenders in previous elections, along with the Democratic Party Central Committee, which in 2012 put out a $1,085 mailer supporting then-candidate Chris Clark.
The wave of independent spending may tempt candidates to compensate by raising and spending more than the city's voluntary expenditure limit of $22,689 this year, which all of the candidates have agreed to. That would mean breaking the tradition in Mountain View of keeping campaign spending low.
"If I knew I had to spend double or triple the amount of the VEL to be competitive with the amount of independent money, I would not have chosen to run," said candidate Greg Unangst, who said he chose to write his campaign a $21,000 check to avoid any appearance of a conflict of interest.
"The amount of independent money obliterates the intent of the VEL policy. It also puts those of us who ethically do not pursue this money at a distinct disadvantage," he said. "I do not question the veracity of those who accepted these endorsements. I don't think they knew the magnitude of the funds coming their way. It is legal and an accepted practice, which I think is unfortunate."
Phone poll, mailers for Rosenberg
Rosenberg's campaign was the only one to benefit from spending by the National Association of Realtors Fund the powerful, Chicago-based lobbying group that represents a wide range of people in the real estate industry. The association reported spending $10,237 on mailers for Rosenberg. It was also apparently behind the mysterious phone poll that residents complained about in August, as the fund reported spending $15,500 on a phone poll in support of Rosenberg.
Candidate Lenny Siegel, who said he has received no support from special interest groups, is sticking by his recommendation that people elect him along with Pat Showalter and either Greg Unangst or Ken Rosenberg depending on how they feel about rent control. He says that would allow substantially more housing to be built in order to meet demand, hold down housing prices and reduce commuter traffic. All four support zoning to allow thousands of new homes in a new neighborhood north of Highway 101, something Matichak, Capriles, Kamei and Salem say they oppose.
"The existence of well-funded independent committees makes a mockery of the spending limit, but I don't blame the candidates who are receiving assistance from those committees," Siegel said in an email. "Campaign financing in this country needs to be reformed, and right now it looks like that may take a Constitutional amendment."
On its website, the NEC claims to be a "coalition of professionals, parents, teachers, businesses, and concerned citizens working to keep local dollars at the local level." The NEC's phone number leads to Crummitt and Associates, a Long Beach law firm that specializes in campaign finance reporting, which did not respond to a request for comment.
Somewhat ironically, the NEC website states that "lopsided spending in local elections has prevented many local campaigns from being a fair representation of local needs. Special interest spending tends to overlook the true need of the constituency. Local elections should be about the issues not about who raised the most money."
"I am concerned about independent expenditures from the Neighborhood Empowerment Coalition because it is not clear who they are and what they want," said candidate Lisa Matichak. "I don't have an issue with independent expenditures from organizations that identify themselves and their agenda."
There has been another, less controversial independent mailer supporting Capriles, Kamei and Matichak funded by the South Bay Labor Council, which reported an expenditure of $1,615 for each of the three candidates.