Bill Bloomfield, a businessman and real estate developer from Manhattan Beach, spent more than $7 million of his own money two years ago in a losing attempt to win a seat in Congress.
This election, Bloomfield is using his considerable wealth in a different way. He’s contributed about $1.5 million to support candidates he believes are practical and smart – people he knows personally, or those who have been recommended by a friend.
“What I believe is wrong with Sacramento and D.C. is that groups that have economic skin in the game very often have too much sway in what happens,” said Bloomfield, 63, who ran as an independent in his unsuccessful challenge of Democratic Rep. Henry Waxman. “I am looking for people that are willing to risk a re-election, risk the end of a political career, in order to do the right thing for our state and our country.”
With his change in tack, Bloomfield joins a fraternity of deep-pocketed California benefactors screening candidates through their own ideological filters and spending large sums to influence the outcome of elections. Others in the elite club are Republican Charles T. Munger Jr., a Stanford physicist and a son of Berkshire Hathaway Vice Chairman Charlie Munger; and Democrat Tom Steyer, a billionaire former hedge-fund executive and progressive environmental activist.
Just a week ahead of the state’s primary election, Munger and Bloomfield rank Nos. 2 and 3, respectively, on the list of donors operating independently of candidates’ campaigns, trailing only the powerful California Teachers Association. By law, such donors cannot coordinate with campaigns but can contribute unlimited amounts. Bloomfield gives under his own name, and Munger spends through his PAC, Spirit of Democracy California.
Bloomfield has mostly spent on behalf of independents and Democrats, while Munger has continued in his recent role as the state’s chief GOP booster. Both men have chipped in to help Republican gubernatorial candidate Neel Kashkari overcome Republican Assemblyman Tim Donnelly to advance to the general election.
Steyer and his wife have become top contributors to outside groups nationwide, including Steyer’s super PAC, NextGen Climate. On Wednesday, the group said it planned to spend $100 million this year to sway U.S. Senate and governors’ races across the U.S. with a focus on the environment and climate change.
The patrons and their aides acknowledge their involvement often sparks criticism that they are using their sizable bank accounts to satisfy their personal interests. But friends and supporters maintain the contributors are looking out for what they believe is in the public interest.
Bloomfield focuses on improving education and electing non-ideological candidates. Munger wants a strong two-party system that reflects the state’s diversity. Steyer is seeking to bring the threat of climate change to the forefront of political discourse.
“If you are somebody that feels very strongly about various things, and you have the money to back it up, God be with you. And I think that describes Charlie Munger and Tom Steyer,” said former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, adding “I trust (them) to do anything.”
Riordan said he has enjoyed getting to know Bloomfield, whom he supported against Waxman.
“In the long run, they are all open-minded, brilliant, successful people,” he said. “The open-minded will come down on the correct sides, because it’s not all about one issue.”
Fighting ‘big-oil Goliath’
In California, Steyer has largely stayed out of the primary but is expected to have a presence in the general election when Democrats fight for supermajorities in the Senate and Assembly. Chris Lehane, Steyer’s political strategist, said it was important for “truth, justice, democracy, our children and the planet that there exist effective governing margins in both chambers.”
Four years ago, Steyer contributed about $5 million to oppose a ballot measure sponsored by oil companies that would have rolled back California’s greenhouse-gas emissions law. He spent more than $32 million in 2012 on a voter-approved initiative that changed the way multistate corporations are taxed in California and directed the proceeds toward energy-saving projects in schools and public buildings.
Steyer, 56, remains interested in a possible ballot measure for 2016 that would require a local vote before additional oil-extraction permits would be approved. He is widely considered a potential candidate for statewide office in 2018 or beyond.
Next week, Steyer is scheduled to host a Democratic fundraiser with Vice President Joe Biden at his home in San Francisco. An opponent of the Keystone XL pipeline, Steyer has already given $5 million to the super PAC protecting imperiled U.S. Senate Democrats. As part of the national effort, he has pledged to donate $50 million and raise another $50 million.
His multistate blitz is designed to lay the groundwork for Democrats in the 2016 presidential election and includes full-scale campaigns in Senate races in Colorado, Iowa, Michigan and New Hampshire and governors’ races in Florida, Pennsylvania and Maine.
In a statement, Brook Hougesen of the National Republican Senatorial Committee said it was no secret Steyer “bought off Democrats for $100 million” and that she doubted it would work.
“The problem, of course, is that Tom Steyer doesn’t vote in New Hampshire, Michigan, Colorado or Iowa,” she said.
Lehane said the spending amounts to “a drop in the big-oil bucket,” singling out billionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch as GOP donors with special interests of their own. On Friday, NextGen Climate officials released a web video calling out the Koch brothers for declining a debate invitation.
“All Tom is trying to do is really to balance and level the paying,” Lehane said. “We are never going to have as much money as the other side. But, all we need is enough for David’s slingshot to fire true, and to fire fast and to fire quick to be able to reach the big-oil Goliath.”
Steyer critics also question whether a climate-change agenda will resonate in states with vulnerable incumbents such as Alaska, Louisiana and North Carolina.
Lehane said he welcomes a discussion about why some candidates are “taking and adopting an anti-science position.”
“At the end of the day, Tom is spending his money in the public interest in advance of an issue that is going to impact people today and our kids tomorrow,” he said. “Whereas the other side is spending money to advance their own economic self-interest.”
‘A forgotten party’
Munger, 57, has been active in the California primary. His PAC, Spirit of Democracy California, has spent more than $1.6 million through Friday on ads and mailers on behalf of candidates.
In addition, he has made direct contributions to Republican candidates, including some running in deeply Democratic districts.
His federal PAC is ramping up in support of GOP congressional challengers. In recent years he has given millions to help the state Republican Party and various county central committees to begin rebuilding their infrastructure. His money has gone to voter-registration drives and candidate recruitment and training.
“I think he wants to make sure we don’t become a forgotten party,” said Sol Jobrack, who received $3,000 from Munger for his uphill run against Assemblywoman Susan Talamantes Eggman, D-Stockton. He met an associate of Munger while he was attending San Jose State University.
Munger donated the maximum $27,200 to Kashkari’s campaign and contributed $350,000 to a new outside group supporting the moderate. Donnelly was asked about the contribution at an event Thursday in Fresno.
“Not surprising that the guy that has decided he’s going to spend money, tremendous amounts of money against every single conservative in any Republican-on-Republican primary. ... I think his goal is to destroy the Republican Party,” Donnelly said. “But I believe that he can’t buy this election.”
While he has no ideological litmus test, the GOP patron tends to gravitate toward candidates he believes will help the party expand its base, supporting non-white and female candidates.
He spent $310,000 to boost the prospects of Mario de la Piedra in his intraparty clash with socially conservative pastor Rob McCoy in Ventura County and $132,000 for Republican Catharine Baker in an East Bay race marked by millions in spending by supporters of pro-business Democrat Steve Glazer and union-backed Democrat Tim Sbranti.
Richard Temple, the campaign consultant for Spirit of Democracy, said Munger has a long-term goal.
“He is supporting good, solid candidates with ideas to start talking to voters in a way that they haven’t been talked to before,” he said.
The top recipient of Munger’s independent largesse in this primary is former Assemblywoman Bonnie Garcia of Cathedral City, who is locked in an increasingly acrimonious showdown with fellow Republicans Jeff Stone, a Riverside County supervisor, and Glenn Miller, an Indio city councilman. The pair teamed up in a news conference to assail Garcia for her ties to Munger, who has spent nearly $500,000 promoting her campaign.
Stone and Miller said they “cannot condone ... a San Francisco billionaire trying to control who is going to represent Riverside County.”
Garcia noted that she has no control over the messages and images used by outside groups.
“I applaud Mr. Munger because he has been willing to step in and help candidates across the state,” Garcia said. “I have seen him at many events doing a lot of grass-roots stuff that most don’t do.”
Munger has been on the losing end of several expensive ballot-box battles. He spent more than $40 million two years ago, much of it to oppose Gov. Jerry Brown’s sales and income tax hike and back a separate measure that sought to curtail the political power of labor unions.
Playing by the rules
Like Munger, Bloomfield supported open primaries and taking the power of redrawing political districts out of the hands of politicians. A Republican-turned-independent, Bloomfield helped raise money for Sen. John McCain’s presidential campaign and served as a California co-chairman of the Republican National Committee’s Victory Finance Committee in 2008. He also was heavily involved in a group that fought lawsuits they deemed frivolous.
During his challenge of Waxman, Bloomfield touted his independence, support for abortion rights and his self-imposed ban on taking PAC money.
Bloomfield said he and his wife, Susan, are passionate about education policy and fixing the state’s underperforming schools. He is a significant supporter of the Michelle Rhee-led national organization Students First.
Of the $1.52 million Bloomfield is directing to boost campaigns this year, $720,000 has gone to help schools superintendent candidate Marshall Tuck, who is fighting to advance to a head-to-head match-up against incumbent Tom Torlakson. Both are Democrats.
Bloomfield said he and his wife came away impressed after a recent meeting with the candidate, and received a glowing review of Tuck from former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.
Bloomfield met Democrat Ben Allen, a candidate for the state Senate in Los Angeles, last fall. Over breakfast with Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, the longtime elected official raved about his former policy aide.
“He said the guy is so smart and so ethical,” Bloomfield recalled. “He didn’t have the support of other interest groups. We said, ‘Let’s help him get his message out.’”
The $440,000 they’ve spent on Allen’s behalf has shaken up a race that includes Democrats Betsy Butler, Sandra Fluke and Amy Howorth. Butler’s last candidacy was sunk in part by a complex pact between the California Chamber of Commerce and an agriculture trade group.
“I think we need to have campaign finance reform,” she said. “(Independent expenditures) are a really big problem, whether they are Bill Bloomfield or anybody else.”
Bloomfield, who also has paid for mailers featuring Kashkari and independent secretary of state candidate Dan Schnur, said he shares many of the concerns about the need for campaign finance reform. When California Common Cause, a group that supports public financing of campaigns, was looking for new blood, members asked Bloomfield to join.
In the meantime, Bloomfield says he’s playing by the existing campaign finance rules.
“We are just trying to help who we think are good people get out their message,” he said. “The voters will decide. And then we’ll all move on.”