Marcos Bretón

Marcos Breton: Steinberg’s $1.4 million state war chest unfair in mayoral race

In a very real sense, the race for Sacramento mayor is not a fair fight. Former state Senate leader Darrell Steinberg has a massive fundraising advantage over his main opponent, Councilwoman Angelique Ashby.

Steinberg has more than $1.4 million from a state war chest at his disposal – money he amassed under the auspices of a possible run for California lieutenant governor. All that loot in the bank is beyond the $397,000 Steinberg has raised in his city account since announcing his mayoral candidacy in October.

By comparison, Ashby has raised $262,000 since jumping in the mayor’s race. But before she announced her candidacy, Ashby was held to strict fundraising limits in her City Council account, particularly in nonelection years.

Much of Steinberg’s $1.4 million war chest comes from special interests outside of Sacramento who contributed while he was arguably the second most powerful leader in California. And, unlike Ashby, Steinberg was far freer to begin raising money in 2011 as a presumptive candidate for statewide office.

Steinberg’s decided financial advantage has been the most hotly contested issue in an otherwise tame mayor’s race. Most of the fighting has been playing out behind closed doors.

Josh Pulliam, Ashby’s campaign manager, has been lobbying city lawyers in an unsuccessful effort to block Steinberg from using his million-dollar-plus state nest egg.

In correspondence sent to prospective voters, Ashby has been trying to make an issue out of Steinberg’s cash advantage.

“My opponent has every advantage in the book,” Ashby wrote in emails to voters this week. “He thinks he needs another $1.4 million to beat me.”

Steinberg’s advantage is unfair. It’s very unfair.

The money Steinberg will use in the campaign also raises questions that city voters should consider:

Do you have a problem with so much special-interest money affecting a city race – particularly when much of that money was given by individuals and groups from outside Sacramento?

Much of Steinberg’s money comes from Southern California. Many of the contributors are south-state lawyers. Other big contributors are state union PACs, such as the California Ambulatory Surgery Association, the Service Employees International Union Local 1000 PAC, the Los Angeles Police Protective PAC and others.

Ashby’s protests aside, Sacramento’s city attorney has given Steinberg the green light to use his money.

It’s now Ashby’s move. Will she sue Steinberg to try to block him from using the money?

The clock is ticking. Absentee ballots go out to voters May 9.

Ashby can sue Steinberg if she wants, but the current Sacramento city attorneys are not the first to hold the legal position that state candidates could swoop into city elections with huge cash advantages.

This very issue was debated nine years ago by an entirely different Sacramento City Council. At a city hearing in January 2007, then-Councilwoman Sandy Sheedy raised significant concerns about state money flowing into city elections with no rules to stop it.

“If we’re going to abide by rules and we’re going to make rules, then everybody should play by the same rules,” Sheedy said at a meeting of the council’s Law and Legislation Committee. She said she didn’t think it was fair, but then stopped herself and said, “Maybe this is a question for another time.”

A month later, the City Council enacted some campaign finance rules. But the loophole that allows state candidates to funnel money into city campaigns was never closed.

City lawyers at that time anticipated that it could happen. “There are rumors about retired state candidates running for local office,” said Richard Archibald, then a lawyer for the city, in January 2007. “They don’t necessarily have the same restrictions.”

The rules restricting Ashby and her council colleagues are part of a long-held city ethos of wanting council members focused on policy issues, not constant fundraising.

During nonelection periods, Ashby was restricted to raising $27,000 as a council member. Mayoral candidates are held to raising $55,000 in nonelection year periods. Candidates for lieutenant governor face no comparable cap on overall fundraising, only limits on each contribution.

Ashby’s contention is that Steinberg should be held to the same rules she was.

Steinberg’s answer is that there is no rule to stop him. So he will spend his state money.

The Ashby campaign believes Steinberg should only be able to use $165,000 of his lieutenant governor funds, the maximum amount he could have raised under the city’s limit for three nonelection years. Steinberg transferred more than $1.4 million on March 22.

In the end, Ashby has every right to be angry.

Not only is she running against a popular local politician with strong name value, but the rules work against her as well.

She hasn’t been able to lay a glove on Steinberg so far, and with only weeks to go until absentee ballots are mailed, Steinberg’s money should begin affecting the race very soon.

If the city is blitzed by Steinberg material in the next month, you’ll know why. Steinberg isn’t doing anything illegal or immoral. The rules say he can use all that money. But he’s playing by different rules than Ashby.

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