The race for Sacramento mayor is now the most expensive political campaign in city history. And nearly two weeks remain until Election Day.
Spending in the primary for City Hall’s top political post has eclipsed $1.86 million, according to campaign finance records analyzed by The Sacramento Bee. That figure includes money spent not only by the candidates, but also by special interest groups around the state representing businesses, unions and developers.
Sacramento political consultant Andrew Acosta observed that the mayoral candidates have a large voter base to reach this spring, given that the Democratic presidential primary remains competitive and voter turnout is expected to be high June 7. And the leading mayoral candidates – Councilwoman Angelique Ashby and former state Senate leader Darrell Steinberg – have solid connections to well-funded supporters.
“It should not be surprising that a race as competitive as this for an open mayor’s seat in one of the largest cities in the state would attract qualified candidates and groups who are lining up for and against the candidates,” Acosta said.
A recent wave of spending pushed the campaign past the previous record holder.
Mayor Kevin Johnson and former Mayor Heather Fargo combined to spend $1.55 million in the 2008 primary election cycle. The union representing plumbers spent an additional $201,067 on independent expenditures attacking Johnson in that race.
Both candidates in the 2016 election have funded television ads and a flood of mail pieces in recent weeks. On Thursday, the first attack ad appeared in city mailboxes: a mailer funded by the Sacramento Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce’s political committee and other groups criticizing Steinberg’s time in the Senate and alleging that he supports the McKinley Village development in East Sacramento because of donations he received a decade ago.
Steinberg continues to lead the pack in both money raised and spent. His campaign reported Thursday that it has spent just over $1.1 million since October and has now raised $2.16 million.
Most of the money raised by Steinberg originated with $1.4 million he collected for a potential campaign for lieutenant governor. Steinberg transferred that money into his mayoral account this spring and closed the lieutenant governor account.
Ashby reported spending $309,237 since the start of her campaign. She has raised just over $374,000.
Ashby has repeatedly criticized Steinberg for using the lieutenant governor money, casting herself as the underdog to a well-financed competitor. She sued Steinberg earlier this month, alleging he “illegally moved” about $220,000 into the mayoral account, including $192,000 that should have been refunded to donors to the abandoned lieutenant governor campaign. Her lawsuit seeks to block Steinberg from using that cash. A court hearing is scheduled for June 2.
“I’m really surprised that a politician who has been around as long as Steinberg felt he needed to spend such an obscene amount of money to win a local race in Sacramento,” said Ashby campaign strategist Josh Pulliam. “I assumed he was saving his war chest to transfer it back for another big statewide campaign, but all that polling and opposition research they paid for must have shown he had to go nuclear.”
In addition to the candidate spending, special interest groups have combined to spend $419,870 on independent expenditures such as mail pieces, according to a Bee analysis. Independent expenditures are campaign expenses made without direct knowledge or involvement of a candidate.
Most of the campaign ads have been in support of a candidate. The firefighter and police unions have funded ads in support of Ashby, while real estate agents and building trade unions have paid for pro-Steinberg ads.
The mailer attacking Steinberg was designed by the California Taxpayers Coalition, a political committee operated by a San Diego-area consultant, according to paperwork filed with the secretary of state’s office. It was funded by the Sacramento Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce’s political action committee, the Western Electrical Contractors Association and Central Valley farming giant Gerawan Farming.
Roy Brewer, chairman of the Metro Chamber PAC, attempted to distance his group from the ad. The committee is supporting Ashby and he said the group gave $25,000 to the California Taxpayers Coalition “to support the candidate we endorsed.”
“I don’t know who filed that particular report (with the secretary of state) or why they used that word (opposed),” he said.
Still, Brewer added, “it seems to me that what a candidate has said in the public record or a candidate’s voting record might be relevant information that voters should be aware of.”
The Western Electrical Contractors Association also donated $25,000 for the ad. The association is an alliance of nonunion contractors that has opposed labor agreements on large public projects, including the construction of Sacramento’s Golden 1 Center. A spokesman for the group did not comment on the mailer.
Another $15,000 was donated by Gerawan Farming. The Fresno County farm has been embroiled in a bitter legal dispute with the United Farm Workers union and the state Agricultural Labor Relations Board. The UFW has alleged labor law violations against Gerawan, and some workers at the farm have sought to decertify the union.
A media spokesman for the farm did not return a message seeking comment.
The mailer attacks Steinberg for a “culture of corruption” at the state Senate. Three Democratic senators were brought up on criminal charges when Steinberg was Senate president. Steinberg said he acted appropriately by immediately suspending the legislators with pay and he has never been connected to any of the criminal cases.
The ad also criticizes Steinberg for his support of the McKinley Village development in East Sacramento, saying he supported the project only after receiving donations from the project’s developer.
McKinley Village was approved by the City Council in 2014, while Steinberg was still in the Senate. Steinberg received donations from project developer Phil Angelides between 2003 and 2007 – seven years before the development was approved.
Steinberg has voiced support for the project during mayoral debates. The Metro Chamber lobbied for the project’s approval in 2014.
Ashby voted against the project on the City Council.
“It’s patently absurd – not to mention hypocritical – for the Metro Chamber to conspire with Central Valley corporate interests and clumsily attack one of the most honorable leaders in Sacramento’s history with goofy and desperate half-truths relating to a project the chamber itself supported,” Steinberg campaign spokesman Jason Kinney said.