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Randall Benton / Sacramento Bee file

Campaigns for seats on the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors, shown during a 2010 hearing, are so expensive that the cost is identified as a key reason relatively few candidates join the race each election cycle.

Campaign cost seen as deterrent to Sacramento County supervisor races

Published: Saturday, Apr. 5, 2014 - 12:00 am
Last Modified: Sunday, Apr. 6, 2014 - 10:15 am

Sacramento County supervisors are paid about $100,000 a year, almost twice the salary of a Sacramento City Council member, and manage a $2  billion annual budget that is more than double the city’s budget.

Yet most years, City Council elections are considerably more competitive – and this year is no different. While 13 candidates are vying for four City Council seats, only four candidates are running for three seats on the Board of Supervisors.

Political consultants cite two factors for the low interest in Sacramento County supervisor races: the high cost of running a campaign and low public awareness of what county government does.

While the City Council has spent much of the past year focused on a downtown arena project that would keep the Sacramento Kings in town, the Board of Supervisors has grappled with the lower-profile complexities of realignment, which involves shifting state inmates and parolees to county supervision.

Political incumbents typically enjoy a built-in advantage, and that is particularly the case for below-the-radar county supervisors. In the June 3 election, incumbent Supervisor Phil Serna is running unopposed for a second term, as is five-term Supervisor Don Nottoli.

When Supervisor Jimmie Yee announced plans last year to retire from his Sacramento-based District 2, his pending departure seemingly created a ripe opportunity for aspiring local politicians. But when the filing deadline came in March, only two candidates entered the race: Sacramento City Unified school board President Patrick Kennedy and former reality show contestant Jrmar Jefferson, whose ballot designation is “Entertainer/Father.”

In the last 16 years, 38 candidates have run for 20 seats on the county board, an average of 1.9 candidates per election. By comparison, an average of 2.6 candidates have run in each Sacramento City Council race in the same period – one-third more than in the county.

A candidate needs to buy signs and mailers, and costs can quickly add up because each district has about 100,000 households and covers an average of 200 square miles.

When Supervisor Roberta MacGlashan was first elected to the board in 2004, she spent about $350,000 on a race that went to a runoff against lobbyist Bob Walters. When Yee was first elected to the board in 2008, he spent $220,000 to beat SMUD board member Larry Carr.

Carr said the high cost of running a campaign was a factor in his decision not to run for Yee’s seat this year. Raising money is time-consuming, he said.

That’s especially true in Sacramento County because of contribution limits, political consultants say. In Sacramento County, organizations can contribute $1,000 and individuals $500 per election period to each candidate. Between election years, organizations and individuals can contribute only $250 to each candidate.

By contrast, the city of Sacramento allows organizations to contribute $5,350 and individuals to give $1,600 to City Council candidates.

“The contribution limits are pretty tough – it makes it more difficult to run (for supervisor),” said Andrew Acosta, a Democratic consultant.

Tab Berg, a Republican consultant, said the county’s contribution limits favor incumbents because they have more ready access to contributors than political newcomers. Among others, he has run the campaigns of MacGlashan, who loaned herself $125,000 to run her first supervisor campaign. In the same election, Walters loaned himself $145,000.

County supervisor candidates have to spend more money educating voters because they’re not as familiar with the responsibilities of supervisors, as they are with, say, Sacramento City Council members, Berg and Acosta said. The relatively low-profile work of the Board of Supervisors also means less interest in the job, they added.

Kennedy himself took a shot at City Council before his current run for Board of Supervisors, losing the city race in 2010 to Jay Schenirer. Still, Kennedy said the Board of Supervisors is “the most important office in Sacramento County in terms of making a difference in people’s lives.”

A big reason for his belief has to do with his background, he said. He has a strong interest in county-provided social services because he was raised by a single mother who received welfare until she died of a drug overdose when he was 11.

Jefferson also originally wanted to run for the Sacramento City Council, but decided he would have a better shot running for supervisor. He moved to Sacramento a year ago from Los Angeles because his wife is from the area.

Jefferson and his twin brother, Lamar, previously had a singing group called Timez Two that performed on reality shows, including America’s Got Talent. He said he wants to help people get out of poverty.

“I’ve always wanted to be into politics,” Jefferson said. “I’m great with people.”

Call The Bee’s Brad Branan, (916) 321-1065. Follow him on Twitter @BradB_at_SacBee.

Read more articles by Brad Branan

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