Business money and arena fight shape two Sacramento Assembly races

In an election populated with Sacramento Democrats, David Townsend had little trouble deciding where to direct hefty sums from his business allies.

The head of a formidable business-funded political action committee called Californians for Jobs and a Strong Economy, Townsend said his group seeks to support “jobs-and-economics Democrats, and not ideological progressive types.”

He believes he has found them.

“It’s pretty consistent across the board that Steve Cohn and Jim Cooper, in their respective races, are clearly preferred by those people who share those values,” Townsend said.

Both Sacramento City Councilman Cohn and Elk Grove City Councilman Cooper are Democrats. They are vying with fellow Democrats, Sacramento City Councilmen Kevin McCarty and Darrell Fong, to claim two Assembly seats currently held by Democrats, Assemblymen Richard Pan and Roger Dickinson, who are seeking an open state Senate post.

Even in a pair of Democrat-on-Democrat contests held in districts marked by heavy Democratic voter registration, Townsend’s group and the Sacramento Metro Chamber of Commerce have swiftly identified and fortified the campaigns of two candidates they perceive as business-friendly.

Dividing the field is the heated debate around a new Sacramento Kings basketball arena, with Fong and McCarty both voting against a public arena subsidy. The battle to keep the Kings in Sacramento became the preeminent civic issue last year and helped cement the legacy of Mayor Kevin Johnson, who has ties to Townsend’s group.

“Kevin McCarty is an extremely liberal progressive to the point of being against major economic development projects in Sacramento and is not in touch with where we think Californians want to be,” Townsend said, putting Fong in the same category.

While the arena debate is a Sacramento-specific issue, the two races hint at the broader, statewide dynamics of California’s nonpartisan primary election system. Same-party combatants will clash in 16 legislative contests this year, 12 of them pitting Democrats against other Democrats. In races without a Republican on the ballot, businesses are looking for clues to help them decide which candidate will best represent their interests at the Capitol.

During the 2012 election, the first cycle operating under a system in which the top two primary vote-getters advance to the general election regardless of political affiliation, cascades of outside spending washed over Democrat-on-Democrat races.

In the 13 legislative races in which two Democrats faced off in the general election in 2012, ten featured significant independent spending. That included tens to hundreds of thousands from business interests and from reliable Democratic allies such as trial lawyers and labor unions representing school employees, nurses and healthcare workers. Much of the money flowed in the weeks leading up to November elections.

Fong and McCarty, who dispute the idea that they aren’t business-friendly, have received maximum direct donations from leading labor groups that include teachers unions and the formidable Service Employees International Union. But unions have not yet plunked down independent expenditures comparable to the huge sums emanating from business groups. A $25,000 payment government engineers spent on Fong’s behalf is dwarfed by the amount business groups have spent for Cooper.

Californians for Jobs and a Strong Economy has bestowed thousands upon the Assembly campaigns of Cohn ($45,000) and Cooper ($195,000). Unlike with direct donations, there are no dollar limits on so-called independent expenditures that groups make for or against candidates.

The Sacramento Metro Chamber of Commerce has backed both Cohn and Cooper, bolstering their business credentials, and has also lavished $127,000 upon Cohn in independent spending.

“For us it was really about elected officials that have openness to business from the standpoint of investment and job creation,” said Dennis Rogers, who oversees the chamber’s political spending. “One of the things that was incredibly important to us was that whenever possible, local governments reduce their own regulatory burden beyond what is proposed by the state of California or the federal government.”

Labor groups mapping a statewide battlefield, including races key to preserving a Democratic supermajority in the Legislature and competitive races for state controller and state superintendent, also must deploy resources strategically.

Bill Camp, head of the Sacramento Central Labor Council, said he would “do everything I am capable of doing to make sure Darrell Fong and Kevin McCarty get elected,” but acknowledged his group has limited financial resources. A spokesman for the California Labor Federation said the statewide organization is waiting to plan spending until after members officially vote on endorsements later this month.

“Prior to that happening, we’re not moving money around anywhere,” spokesman Steve Smith said.

There is no reliable template for unions deciding when to spend in exclusively Democratic races, according to Dave Low, who heads the California School Employees Association and chairs an alliance of public employee unions called the Labor Coalition.

“Even Democrat-on-Democrat races, they’re all unique depending on the candidates,” Low said. “The real question becomes, does the other person contrast strongly or not? In some of these cases unions might endorse one over the other and it might be a close call; in another it might not be so close. The bigger the gap between the two, the bigger the incentive to engage in the race.”

McCarty and Fong have won the endorsements of various labor groups, but they have not benefited from outside spending comparable to the business money aiding their opponents. McCarty said his skepticism about a publicly funded arena has become a key motivator for his opponents.

“To me it’s become clear that my opposition to the arena, specifically the $700 million taxpayer subsidy and my position the people should have had a vote on it, has led me to become a target,” McCarty said.

Business representatives confirmed McCarty’s theory. Like Townsend, Rogers spotlighted the arena issue as one differentiating candidates.

“For me the arena is an economic development tool,” Rogers said. “What it really speaks to is that folks outside of our area look at Sacramento and they view it as a good economic investment.”

There is a good chance more business money is coming, Townsend said.

“I think that if you went down to a corner bookie and laid down a bet,” Townsend said, you’d have a fair chance of success.

Yet even with the flow of business money drawing the contours of the race, the two Democrat-dominated races in ways defy the type of easy ideological sorting that marks Republican-vs.-Democrat contests.

Organized labor groups have given directly on both sides. So while Fong and McCarty have the support of teachers unions and the Service Employees International Union, Cohn has gotten thousands from construction workers unions; Cooper has won the financial backing of unions representing food and commercial workers, plumbers and law enforcement officers.

And while a Bee analysis of campaign finance data shows Cohn and Cooper have drawn more in large, direct contributions from business than from labor groups, Fong and McCarty have received money from developers, real estate groups and businesses.

“Where am I anti-business?” Fong asked in an interview, pointing to his work promoting Sacramento’s restaurant industry. “It wasn’t anti-business, it was just me protecting the taxpayer,” he said of his vote on the arena. “You want to support businesses but you also need to have a balance.”

Both Cohn and Cooper have taken stances and cast votes that broke with prominent business groups. Cooper was a vocal advocate of an ordinance limiting big box stores in Elk Grove. Cohn joined McCarty in voting against the proposed McKinley Village project, which would rise on a piece of land developers have been watching for years, and told The Bee he supports raising the minimum wage – a nonstarter for business interests.

“It has to be done in a way that doesn’t shock the economy,” Cohn said. “I do tend to think the arguments against raising the minimum wage are overblown, and when we’ve raised it we don’t see the dire effects that are predicted.”

In an interview, Cooper touted his “long roots in the labor community” and said that his big box stand benefited small businesses, even if it displeased others. He said he likely would have backed the Kings arena plan, had he been able to vote, and noted his support of public subsidies for projects like a new soccer complex.

“It’s not just Sacramento and the arena, but you look at the region and what other communities are doing,” Cooper said. “Everyone’s working on their things to drive economic development.”

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