Candidates running for District 1 on the City Council—from left: Steph Walton, Dan Kalb, and Tri Ngo—are beginning to take aim at each other's finances. Credit: Courtesy of the candidates

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The campaign to represent North Oakland on the City Council is becoming contentious, with candidate Steph Dominguez Walton accusing incumbent Dan Kalb of accepting contributions from unsavory sources, and voters running to each side’s defense.

Kalb said the attacks are a “campaign ploy” that misrepresents a few individual contributions largely from a prior election. The city’s Public Ethics Commission, which has authority to enforce violations of campaign finance rules, hasn’t accused Kalb of any wrongdoing.

Meanwhile, the third District 1 candidate, Tri Ngo, has refused to accept any donations above $35, saying the large dollar amounts flowing into his opponents’ campaign committees threaten public trust and stymie participation in local politics.

So far, Walton has raised $156,000 for her campaign, Kalb has raised $133,000, and Ngo has taken in $6,500. The candidates have agreed to the city’s spending limit of $153,000, which allows them to collect a maximum of $900 per person. 

But city records indicate that more money may soon flow into the D1 race in Walton’s favor. On Tuesday, an independent committee called “It’s Our Time, Supporting Stephanie Dominguez Walton for City Council 2020” filed paperwork with the city indicating it intends to buy ads in support of Walton. Independent expenditure committees are not affiliated with campaigns but can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money to support or oppose a candidate. 

Walton criticizes Kalb contributors 

In mid-September, Walton emailed her supporters and media a statement saying Kalb has displayed a “pattern of questionable conduct that is unbecoming of a member of our city council.”

The statement mainly referred to an investigation by the Oakland Public Ethics Commission into allegations that the city’s curbside recycling provider illegally laundered campaign contributions to multiple councilmembers between 2013 and 2018. Three of the officials who received the potentially laundered contributions—Kalb, District 3 Councilmember Lynette Gibson McElhaney, and At-large Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan—are currently running for reelection.

The Oaklandside broke the news of the investigation on Sept. 15. Kalb said he hadn’t heard about the case before then, and had not knowingly accepted money that was possibly connected to the recycling company, since city contractors are barred from supporting elected officials. The Public Ethics Commission’s investigation centers on the people who made the contributions, not the councilmembers who may have accepted checks from them.

Walton said in her statement that Kalb should “immediately return these contributions.” She told The Oaklandside that “elected officials need to be transparent” about whether they’ve followed campaign finance rules.

In an interview this week, Kalb said that if the investigation turns up any wrongdoing, “of course we’re going to do whatever they tell us to do.” He said Walton’s statement misleadingly implied that the contributions were for this election cycle, when instead they were given to a previous campaign committee that has since been closed.

“There’s no news here, and it’s just the typical campaign ploy to try to get attention,” Kalb said. “What do they want most? They want me to spend as little money as possible to communicate with my voters.”

Kalb said he has a strong history of advocating for clean money in politics and campaign finance reform. He used to work for the political watchdog group Common Cause and has spoken before the state legislature on financial disclosure law.

Asked whether she thinks Kalb has acted unethically, Walton said, “That’s not my call to make.” But she called the allegations “important information” that the “public has a right to know.” 

The money-laundering investigation, and Walton’s statement in response to it, has prompted a lively debate among D1 constituents. 

Several residents argued on NextDoor in the days following Walton’s statement. Peter Ambler, an anti-gun violence advocate and the husband of Assemblymember Buffy Wicks, who has endorsed Walton, wrote in a post that Kalb “has questions to answer” about a number of allegations in the ethics investigation. Documents in the case say Kalb took some of the checks without collecting all the required information about the donors. (Kalb told The Oaklandside that if any of the contributions came with partial information, his campaign would have followed up with the donors to properly report them).

Walton volunteered for Wicks’ 2018 campaign for State Assembly, in which Wicks beat several candidates, including Kalb. Wicks and Ambler have each donated $900 to Walton’s campaign. 

In Kalb’s defense, Jon Bauer, an EBMUD analyst and former member of the city Budget Advisory Commission, condemned Walton’s campaign for “incendiary” language and unproven statements about Kalb’s fundraising.

The ZIP code where both Steph Walton and Dan Kalb live, 94618, is disproportionately represented in campaign contributions across Oakland. Credit: Pete Rosos

Walton’s Sept. 17 statement also blasted Kalb for accepting donations from Schnitzer Steel, a company that has a metal scrap yard in West Oakland next to Howard Terminal. The Oakland Athletics, who want to build their new stadium complex at the terminal, have sued a state regulator over Schnitzer’s emissions. 

“The incumbent calls himself the environmental advocate on the council,” and yet he took $800 from a polluter, Walton told The Oaklandside.

“No one’s trying to give Schnitzer Steel a pass on anything,” countered Kalb. “I’m second to no one in terms of pushing for strong air quality regulations.” 

Schnitzer did not respond to a question about why the company contributed to Kalb. Over the past four years, the company also contributed to the campaigns of Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf, Alameda County Supervisor Wilma Chan, Assemblymember Rob Bonta, and State Senator Nancy Skinner, according to public records.

Kalb said his speculation is that the latest contribution stems from a public meeting last year, during which he inquired about the details of the A’s Howard Terminal proposal. “Just me asking questions for the public to hear started causing rankles among A’s fans and boosters. It’s our job to ask questions,” he said.  

Who has given money to Kalb, Walton, and Ngo?

Many of Kalb’s 2020 contributors are professionals who work in the climate and energy fields, as well as in local and state government, and architects, lawyers, and accountants. Several Bay Area politicians have given money to his campaign, including Bonta and Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf, who gave $900 each, as well as Kaplan and Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguín. Kalb has support from several local labor unions, including those representing city workers, nurses, healthcare workers, and engineers.

“Dan has been stalwart on issues of reducing fire hazard in the hills,” said Zac Unger, president of the International Association of Firefighters Local 55, which gave the maximum allowed $1,700 to Kalb. Unger said Kalb has been labor-friendly too, generating revenue for the city through new progressive taxes and other policies.

The largest chunks of Walton’s contributions come from people who work in tech and real estate, and as lawyers, physicians, and consultants. She has heavy support from building and construction trades unions. In its endorsement statement, the Northern California Regional Carpenters Council, which gave $1,700, said it expects Walton to “bring good-paying union jobs to Oakland and work collaboratively to address the housing crisis.”

Walton’s support from the real estate industry has drawn criticism from some voters who think it indicates she’s friendly to big business or beholden to developers’ interests. Several of her donors have leadership roles in the East Bay Rental Housing Association, a local landlord group. Walton has worked briefly in the industry herself as a real estate agent and mortgage advisor, and said many of those supporters are personal connections.

“I know a ton of people, and many of them are in real estate and some of them are small landlords,” she said. “I’m bought by no one and owned by no one.” 

Kalb declined to comment directly on Walton’s contributors. But he said, “Influence is not going to come about because of one contribution. That’s going to come about because of a large number of contributions or large dollar amount from the same industry or sector.”

As for the independent expenditure committee set up to support Walton, the group hasn’t filed disclosure forms with the city yet indicating whether it has raised or spent money. It’s unclear who in Oakland is behind the committee, but was established by a political consulting firm, 50+1 Strategies, and according to public records the same committee was used two years ago to pay for advertising supporting London Breed’s San Francisco mayoral campaign. Representatives of 50+1 Strategies did not respond to emails seeking comment.

Ngo did not report itemized contributions in his filings, making it impossible to tell who gave to his campaign. The state only requires detailed reports on donations over $100.

Even though Ngo has raised a tiny fraction of what his opponents have brought in, he said he doesn’t regret imposing a limit of $35 per donor.

“I want to have a super high-integrity and honest campaign finance situation,” Ngo said in an interview. “The fundamental problem with our democracy right now is that money buys speech.” By limiting the size of the donation, Ngo said he’s not giving undue influence to wealthy contributors.

But he said Walton is hypocritical to call out Kalb for questionable donations. 

“It’s very political,” Ngo said. “I think Steph is in a very weak position to make accusations about that, given that she’s running her campaign just like everyone else, accepting donations from a non-representative selection of people.” If nobody was allowed to pour hundreds of dollars into a campaign, the D1 race could be focused on policy instead, he said.

Ngo’s opponents said they respect his approach, but Walton said there was no way she could limit her fundraising while trying to “unseat a two-term incumbent.”

In Ngo’s view, the perils of money in politics can be pronounced in a district with significant income inequality, like D1, where only part of the population can afford to max-out on donations. 

A new report from the Public Ethics Commission corroborates Ngo’s belief that campaign financing comes from a small, nonrepresentative—overly affluent and white—subset of Oakland. The “reliance on money as the driving force means winners are selected and policy may be shaped by those who can contribute to political campaigns,” the commission found. “This system results in clear inequities in participation for people of color and low-income communities.”

In the 2014, 2016, and 2018 elections, over half of all political contributions in Oakland came from just four ZIP codes. One of those was 94618, where both Walton and Kalb live. 

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Natalie Orenstein covers housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. She was previously on staff at Berkeleyside, where her extensive reporting on the legacy of school desegregation received recognition from the Society of Professional Journalists NorCal and the Education Writers Association. Natalie’s reporting has also appeared in The J Weekly, The San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere, and she’s written about public policy for a number of research institutes and think tanks. Natalie grew up in Berkeley and has only left her beloved East Bay once, to attend Pomona College.