Joyce Terhaar

Watchdog political reporting needs to be a priority

Sacramento County supervisors voted for stronger public transparency on Tuesday when they unanimously agreed to require candidates for local government offices to file their campaign disclosures online.

You’d think every candidate running for any office this year would be doing that. Surprisingly, certain governments and agencies still rely on paper or – like the state of California – still offer a system of disclosure that is too byzantine to be useful to the average curious citizen.

Whether easy to find or not, keeping an eye on campaign dollars is a core part of The Sacramento Bee’s watchdog election reporting. Across the country, most eyes are focused on the presidential race, especially as early voting winnows the Republican field. But California voters will be confronted this year with what is expected to be an extraordinarily long November ballot, depending on initiatives that qualify. And regardless of whether California’s June primary results will influence the presidential election – it’s too soon to tell – the ballot will include important local races like the open seat for Sacramento mayor.

Expect to be inundated with unfiltered campaign ads and political spin – whether it is in the mail piling up by your front door or a Facebook post planted by a campaign. We know from recent history that races such as Ami Bera’s bid to defend his 7th Congressional District seat from Scott Jones will be expensive; when Democrat Bera beat Republican Doug Ose in 2014, it was the most expensive congressional race in the country, and voters were barraged with ads. Republicans are lining up behind Jones, Sacramento County’s sheriff, as their best hope to regain the seat.

The 7th Congressional District race in 2014 was the most expensive congressional race in the U.S.

The 7th Congressional District seat likely is the most vivid local example of the need for watchdog journalism. It wasn’t local money that drove election costs to the $20 million range in 2014, it was outside super PACs. When an election is as close as it was last time – Bera won by 1,455 votes – it’s imperative that we all understand who is spending money to influence the outcome, and the candidate.

That’s where The Bee and other journalists, including websites like the Sunlight Foundation, will step up. Watchdog political reporting will be a priority for us, as well as informative pieces like our Voter’s Guides and the editorial board’s work to interview candidates and make endorsements. We will work with academia and other media to co-sponsor political debates. Look for these features as the primary nears:

▪ We’re bringing back a handy online tool from 2014, “Pick Your Candidate.” The Bee will ask legislative, congressional and mayoral candidates questions about key issues and use their answers to help readers find the candidate who most closely mirrors their positions.

▪ We will regularly fact check political advertising, whether it arrives at your door, is on television or is posted on social media.

▪ We will track initiatives as they qualify, focusing on those with greatest impact and public interest. The Bee’s political experts expect as many as 20 or so measures will make the November ballot.

▪ Our data journalists will monitor campaign finance reports to ensure voters are aware of influence peddling.

While we don’t yet know the breadth of this year’s elections – especially with so many potential initiatives not yet qualified – we do know highlights.

The majority of California voters favor legalization of marijuana, according to The Field Poll. Because of that belief, and the financial support of tech billionaire Sean Parker, political observers expect at least one initiative to reach the ballot to legalize the recreational use of marijuana. In anticipation, we’ve launched new coverage, to be compiled in a California Weed blog. The Bee’s Peter Hecht, who wrote the book “Weed Land” after years of covering marijuana, will work with Capitol Bureau reporters Christopher Cadelago and Jeremy B. White to cover the politicking and, most importantly, the behind-the-scenes efforts to make money if it becomes legal.

A plastic bag industry group is hoping to overturn California’s ban on single-use bags, outlawed in 2014 in one of the most contentious battles of the legislative session. The referendum on the November ballot challenges the law, asking voters to decide the question. Across California, cities like Sacramento already ban such bags. This is an issue with strong public interest, and we’ll continue to cover it accordingly.

A January Field Poll found California voters evenly split on the death penalty, with 48 percent supporting streamlined executions and 47 percent wanting to replace it with life in prison.

And we may have an initiative on the ballot to ban the death penalty, and a competing measure to make it easier to execute those sentenced to death. That kind of competition reflects public sentiment. A January Field Poll found that California voters no longer favor the death penalty and instead are evenly split, with 48 percent supporting streamlined execution and 47 percent wanting to replace the death penalty with a sentence of life in prison, with no possibility of parole. Competing measures could make for a lively campaign; we will keep an eye on the money and the spin.

In addition to initiatives, you will see local races for city councils and county supervisors in June and November, along with campaigns for the Legislature and Congress – including a rare open seat for U.S. Senate. (Statewide offices like attorney general, however, are not up for a vote this year.) Many local races will be over before Sacramento County starts requiring online filing of campaign finance disclosures Aug. 1.

We will pay particular attention to the race to replace Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson, where former California Senate Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg and City Councilwoman Angelique Ashby are collecting the most endorsements and campaign funding.

Fortunately for all of us, the city of Sacramento abandoned paper for digital some time back. It’s a simple online search at the city’s website to find campaign donations to mayoral candidates.