Wealthy charter school supporters are pouring millions of dollars into the battle to succeed Gov. Jerry Brown, throwing their money into an independent committee to push former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa ahead in a crowded field of candidates.
Netflix CEO Reed Hastings on Wednesday gave $7 million to the committee run by the California Charter Schools Association, an increasingly powerful player in state politics. On Thursday, Los Angeles philanthropist and developer Eli Broad contributed $1.5 million to the effort.
While California law limits how much money a donor can give directly to a candidate's campaign, they can contribute unlimited sums to independent expenditure committees on behalf of one or more candidates. The committees are forbidden from coordinating their activities, such as ad campaigns, with the campaigns and candidates that benefit.
The $8.5 million in outside money could boost Democrat Villaraigosa's profile ahead of the June 5 primary. The former Los Angeles mayor and Assembly speaker has slipped in public opinion polls in recent months, and is now at risk of finishing in third place — behind Democratic Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom and GOP businessman John Cox — and therefore missing the November runoff.
Villaraigosa spokesman Luis Vizcaino said Villaraigosa's "focus is how we can unite Californians to lift more families into the middle class and keep them there. This campaign isn't going to be distracted from that mission by outside efforts for us, or against us."
Newsom said Thursday he was "shocked" by the $7 million contribution from Hastings.
"We are going to see an enormous amount of money spent in independent expenditures…I was not expecting $7 million from one individual," Newsom told The Sacramento Bee Editorial Board Thursday. "I was rather, I was shocked."
Newsom said he's proud of his fundraising, including small-dollar donations (he had nearly $17 million in campaign cash on hand at the end of last year compared to nearly $6 million for Villaraigosa) but he's not taking his lead in fundraising or polls for granted.
Newsom said he was frustrated by the large sum, noting that he's been "working hard" to raise money for his campaign.
"I'm not a victim here at all, but when you're doing Facetime with your kids on spring break because you're doing events and working hard and doing breakfasts and raising $10,000, $20,000, then you read a tweet and someone just got a $7 million contribution in a campaign, it's a bit, could be disheartening," Newsom said. "Because you realize that's the beginning — not the end — of similar contributions."
Two outside campaign committees have formed to help Newsom, including one sponsored by the California Nurses Association.
Regardless of party, the top two vote-getters this June will advance to the November runoff. The closely watched contest has Democrats sparring with one another, and the two Republicans in the race going after each other. Other major Democrats in the race are state Treasurer John Chiang, former state schools chief Delaine Eastin and former Hillary Clinton aide Amanda Renteria. Assemblyman Travis Allen is the other major Republican in the race.
Chiang's campaign criticized the infusion of money from Hastings, a wealthy supporter of charter schools, and Villaraigosa's record on schools during his time as mayor of Los Angeles.
"No matter which way he cuts it, $7 million won't help Antonio Villaraigosa hide the fact that he created a $600 million deficit for the city of Los Angeles," campaign spokesman Fabien Levy said in a statement.
Financial backing from Hastings and other charter schools enthusiasts is likely based on Villaraigosa's strong support for charter schools. As mayor of Los Angeles, Villaraigosa sought to take over the Los Angeles Unified School District and advance charters. Union groups, including the powerful California Teachers Association, broadly oppose the idea. The union is supporting Newsom.
Villaraigosa remains a vocal proponent for charter schools. His education platform in the campaign centers on giving "high-performing public charters," the ability to play "by the same set of rules" as other public schools.
Villaraigosa has sought support from charter schools advocates throughout his campaign.
"I believe that public schools and charters — choices for parents, for kids — is the road to opportunity in America," Villaraigosa told a crowd of charter schools supporters last year. "The fact of the matter is there are a number of high-quality charters and they're all getting pushed back – not just in LA but across this state."
Newsom said Thursday that he isn't "anti-charter" and supports nonprofit charter schools.
"I believe very strongly in high-quality charters," Newsom said. (But) "I'm not ideologically aligned with for-profit education using public money."