With roughly three weeks left until Election Day, spending limits for two out of three Oakland city council races have been lifted. The Public Ethics Commission (PEC) waived how much candidates can spend in these two races on September 26 after political action committees spent over $25,000 in each of the District 2 and District 4 races.
When announcing their run, Oakland candidates decide to accept a spending limit or not. If a candidate accepts, they can take in more money from individual donors or groups than if they do not accept the limit. For example, a candidate who agrees to the limit can accept up to $800 from a person, while a candidate who does not accept the limit can only accept $600 per person.
The spending limits for city council seats vary by district. District 2’s was $142,000 and District 4’s was $136,000. The mayor’s race has the highest limit, at $454,000.
But according to Oakland campaign finance rules, political action committees, or PACs, are allowed to spend as much as they want in campaigns, as long as they do not coordinate with candidates. The money they spend is not given directly to the campaign of the person they are supporting, but rather towards political efforts. PACs can spend in opposition of candidates, as well. However, once $25,000 is spent by PACs in one race, the spending limit for all the candidates is raised to give everyone a chance to combat the efforts of these well-funded groups.
In two council races, the cap was broken by labor-affiliated PACS, which have used their funding to support a single contender. Unity PAC, which is sponsored by the Alameda Labor Council, a worker’s union, is spending $45,000 towards electing District 4 candidate Sheng Thao. This is the only independent expenditure, or money spent independently of a campaign, reported so far in the race.
East Bay Working Families, a PAC that uses funds from Service Employees International Union Local (SEIU) unions in Sacramento, San Francisco, and Oakland, has raised $38,036 towards electing Niki Bas in District 2. This is also the only independent expenditure spending reported so far in the District 2 race.
While the mayor’s race has the highest spending limit of $454,000, as of Thursday, it has not been broken. While Schaff has raised over the spending limit at roughly $455,833, she has spent about $137,069, which is still under the limit.
The practice of lifting the spending limit once PAC money comes in has been criticized by some candidates because they say it undercuts the point of opting into limits in the first place. “The whole thing is a scam,” said Saeid Karamooz, who’s running for mayor and has largely financed himself via a loan of $181,005. “You make a deal to not drive over 400 mph on the highway and in exchange, you get to drive 80 mph in a school zone.”
But others say the independent expenditures can show public support. District 2 candidate Niki Bas said she didn’t realize PAC money was supporting her until she saw mailers her campaign did not pay for. “My sense is there is support for my campaign from other folks. Obviously, that is a big boost for me,” Bas said.
Even though her campaign is benefitting from the Unity PAC’s independent expenditure, District 4 candidate Sheng Thao said campaign finance laws need to be reformed to be more fair towards candidates who don’t come from the business world and can rely on those donors. “The ceiling is $136,000 already and that is a lot. A lot of us haven’t even been able to get past the $60,000 mark,” said Thao. She said the PAC’s spending on her behalf isn’t going to change how she’s fundraising. “I don’t look at that number and think, ‘Oh, I can relax now.’ I want to work just as hard as the person backing me is working on me,” she said.
Charlie Michelson, the District 4 candidate who at $90,334 has raised the closest amount to meeting the previous spending limit, said he’s aware of Unity PAC spending $48,000 in support of his opponent. Michelson said he’s going to focus on individual donations—so far he has collected the most in the District 4 race. “My campaign is really people-powered because I’m a political outsider,” Michelson said. A former shipping company executive, Michelson has many donations from other shipping company representatives.
Whitney Barazoto, executive director of the Public Ethics Commission, said the commission has to strike a line to ensure fairness for all candidates, while still upholding federal campaign spending laws. “The purpose of lifting the ceiling for the race is to allow candidates to counter ads or information put out by the independent spender,” said Barazoto. For example, if a large pharmaceutical company spends PAC money towards electing one candidate, their opponents should have a chance to combat that and not be restricted to the previous spending limit.
The trouble is, the purpose of a spending limit—something the city can control—is short-stepped by something the city cannot: Citizens United, the Supreme Court ruling that declared that PACs cannot be constrained by spending limits. According to Barazoto, the purpose of having a spending limit is to “reduce the influence of large contributors and pressure on candidates to raise large campaign war chests beyond the amount necessary to communicate reasonably with voters.”
But with PACs, “large contributors” can still put as much money as they want into races, Barazoto said. As long as it’s not done in coordination with campaigns, Oakland has to allow it because of Citizens United. “While we cannot change the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision, our commission is currently working to redesign Oakland’s campaign finance and public financing laws to enhance civic engagement in the campaign process and reduce the influence of outside spending,” Barazoto said.
The commission has put out a survey as a part of this process that asks Oaklanders what they think of the election process. The answers will provide the commission with what areas they can approve on with campaign finance. Here are the overall donation trends from the top candidates’ financial disclosures as of their last filing date, September 22.
Current mayor Libby Schaaf is outraising all other candidates with $455,833. Roughly 30 percent of Schaaf’s individual donations are at the $800 limit. Many of Schaaf’s donors are from law offices and real estate companies. Multiple employees of Pet Food Express, Carmel Partners (a real estate consultant firm), UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital Oakland, the Port of Oakland, and Volkswagen of Oakland have also contributed.
Politicians like California Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom (who’s also running for governor) and California Senator Nancy Skinner have also contributed, $800 and $300 respectively.
Karamooz has the second largest amount of money in his coffers, although it is from a loan he took out for $181,005. In an interview with Oakland North, Karamooz said he decided to take out this loan so he wouldn’t have to spend time fundraising and wouldn’t be dependent on any contributors.
Cat Brooks has the third most with $108,663. Most of Brooks’ contributions come from heads of nonprofits and community organizations, with a few coming from tech workers employed by companies like Salesforce and Adobe. She also has a sizeable number of contributions from people who list their occupations as working class positions like educators, nurses, baristas and acupuncturists. Roughly 5 percent of Brooks’ individual donations are at the $800 limit. Politicians like District 6 Councilmember Desley Brooks, Councilmember-at-Large Rebecca Kaplan, and Pamela Price (who is also running for mayor) have contributed $250, $800, and $500 to Brooks’ campaign respectively.
District 2 Race
Incumbent Abel Guillén has the most money raised at $169,943. Groups that have donated to Guillén include the Oakland Police Officer’s Association with $1,500, and labor union PACs like Construction & General Laborers Local Union 304 PAC with $1,600 and United Food & Commercial Workers Local 5 PAC with $1,000.
Most of his contributions come from individuals who work in real estate or law offices. Small business owners from places like Oaklandish to Tacos Mi Rancho have contributed as well, in addition to the head of the Oakland Chamber of Commerce and the Oakland Chinatown Chamber of Commerce. Schaaf has donated $800 to his campaign.
Housing activist Niki Bas, who lifted the spending ceiling thanks to an independent expenditure supporting her campaign, has the second highest total raised. At $93,687, her donors are similar to Brooks’—mostly executives of nonprofits and leaders of community organizing groups. Many members from SEIU chapters have contributed, as well. Brooks has donated $300 to Bas’ campaign.
District 4 Race
Charlie Michelson, owner of West Coast Ship Supply, has raised the most money at $86,318, not including $13,600 he donated to his own campaign. Michelson has just over 300 individual donations—more than any of his competitors. These include many contributions from employees at Wrist Ship Supply, a port shipping supply company that Michelson’s own company is affiliated with. Most of his other donations come from owner or managers of businesses, such as auto repair shops or roofing supply companies.
Former Kaplan staffer Sheng Thao has raised $41,613, not including the $48,000 being spent on her behalf by Unity PAC or the $1,000 she donated to her own campaign. Her contributions mainly come from of union organizers and government workers in Oakland and Alameda County. Kaplan and State Assemblymember Rob Bonta have each contributed $800 to her campaign and former mayor Jean Quan has contributed $250.
Nayeli Maxson, a nonprofit executive and former staffer for outgoing Councilmember Annie Campbell Washington, has raised $45,979. Most of her donations come from Oakland city employees, owners small businesses and nonprofit workers. District 1 Councilmember Dan Kalb has contributed $50 to her campaign.
District 6 Race
Businessperson and nonprofit executive Loren Taylor has raised the most money, even more than incumbent Desley Brooks. Taylor has raised $126,915, not including $1,000 he donated to his own campaign. Taylor shares donors with Schaaf, such as employees of Carmel Partners.
Brooks has raised $92,954. Most of her money comes from developers and owners of businesses. For example, she has raised $4,000 from Vietnamese small businesses alone. The owners of Viet My Thanh Company in Emeryville, Saigon Printing in Oakland, and Alameda Nail and Vu Professional Auto Body in Alameda all contributed $800 separately.