Last spring, as he laid the groundwork for his gubernatorial run, Democrat Antonio Villaraigosa announced the formation of a super PAC he said would “harness the compassion and power” of Californians to fight back against anti-immigrant policies and then-Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump.
For Villaraigosa, who last held office in 2013, the timing was helpful: With the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia approaching, the former Los Angeles mayor could use the federal committee to reintroduce himself to national donors – and voters across California. Villaraigosa did not open his gubernatorial committee until formally announcing his campaign on Nov. 10.
“Building Bridges, Not Walls is about standing up and saying, ‘Enough!’ ” Villaraigosa said in his announcement. “We will help mobilize the passion we see in Californians who say ‘No!’ to Trump and direct it – through calls, texts and emails – toward swing states where it matters most.”
The super PAC’s efforts proved inconsequential in the presidential race, based on a review of federal spending records, and they appear to have been focused largely within liberal California in ways that could help Villaraigosa politically. Democrat Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, won California by nearly 4.3 million votes, but lost to Trump in three of the pivotal swing states – Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania – by a combined 77,744 votes.
Politicians often use PACs to support or oppose a candidate, or advance issues and legislation, while trying to boost their careers, said Jessica Levinson, a law professor and ethics expert at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles.
“It doesn’t look like it was being used to illegally line pockets,” Levinson said of the PAC’s spending. But, she added, “In a most cynical scenario, it looks like it was being used as a precursor to a campaign committee.”
Roger Salazar, the spokesman for Building Bridges, Not Walls, countered that Villaraigosa was focused solely on defeating Trump, pointing to his scores of TV interviews where he refrained from overtly discussing his planned race for governor.
But Salazar acknowledged the PAC fell short of its goals to motivate Californians to reach into battleground states.
“Do we wish we could have done more? Absolutely,” he said, offering that the PAC sent more than 1.5 million emails and placed social media ads that received more than 500,000 impressions. “I don’t think there’s a Democrat in the United States that doesn’t wish we would have been able to do more to defeat Trump. Ultimately, we didn’t have enough money to go through and use the tools we wanted to build to have a much bigger impact in other states.”
A Sacramento Bee review of the committee shows it raised $106,543 through Dec. 31, including $50,000 from the Viejas Band of Kumeyaay Indians, which operates a casino east of San Diego. It took in $30,000 from former Assembly Speaker Fabian Núñez’s state campaign account and $20,000 from David Blonder, an executive at the medical sales company TwinMed.
Building Bridges, Not Walls spent $71,260 last year, largely on campaign overhead for general consulting, website design, transportation and lodging, and other services, and $25,958 on independent expenditures to send emails to California voters and for the California mail file, according to committee filings with the Federal Election Commission.
The super PAC made $9,324 in other disbursements for non-federal emails, along with a $3,816 donation to a national scholarship fund for Dreamers, undocumented immigrants who arrived in the U.S. as children.
Villaraigosa reimbursed himself $1,453 for his national convention stay at the Philadelphia Marriott Downtown, and $221 for airfare.
The Bee review found some overlap between payees to the federal committee and the campaign committee for Villaraigosa’s gubernatorial run through Dec. 31.
The fundraising firm Maravich Associates of Los Angeles received $16,804 from the super PAC ($4,576 of which the campaign says were reimbursements), and grossed $5,118 from the gubernatorial campaign; Data-Clear, an online communications and data firm, NGP Van, a campaign technology provider, and bookkeepers River City Business Services also were paid by both the PAC and the state committee.