The Oakland Fair Elections Act would require the top three highest donors to be disclosed on all independent expenditures supporting or opposing Oakland candidates or measures. Credit: Darwin BondGraham

With the Nov. 3 election just a week away, mailboxes across Oakland are overflowing with glossy mailers touting some candidates for City Council and school board while attacking their opponents. Similar ads have proliferated on Facebook, cable TV, and in local newspapers.

Most of these advertisements are not being paid for by the candidates themselves. They’re coming from independent expenditure committees (IEs) set up by business groups, charter school advocates, and labor unions that have raised an extraordinary amount of money to influence the outcomes of Oakland’s elections this year.

“This is definitely a trend. We’re seeing more IE spending in Oakland in all races,” said Whitney Barazoto, the executive director of the city’s Public Ethics Commission, which keeps track of campaign finance filings and enforces the city’s campaign rules.

The amount of IE spending on local races this year has blown away recent records. According to a report from the ethics commission, IE spending in 2014 and 2016 was just over $400,000 each year for school board and City Council elections. In 2018, spending rose to over $600,000. As of Tuesday morning, over $2.25 million has been spent by IE committees on this year’s elections.

Independent expenditure committees cannot coordinate with the candidates they’re supporting, but they can spend unlimited amounts. This election cycle, multiple IEs have taken advantage of that freedom, spending so much on all four of the school board races, as well as the City Council District 3 and at-large races, that the spending caps for the candidates’ own campaign committees have been lifted.

Under Oakland’s election laws, once IE spending exceeds $125,000 in a citywide campaign, like this year’s at-large race, or $27,000 in a district race, the candidates’ campaigns no longer have to keep their spending below the cap, so their messages aren’t drowned out by outside groups.

Most candidates agree to the spending caps because they allow them to take larger contributions. The rule is intended to prevent incumbents from raising huge war chests while in office to beat back challengers, thereby making elections fairer.

But while Oakland can regulate how much individual candidates raise and spend on their own campaigns, the city can’t reign in independent expenditures. The 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court decision held that committees established by corporations, unions, and other groups, can spend unlimited amounts of money in elections.

Business vs. labor

Two City Council races—the citywide at-large race, as well as District 3, which covers downtown, West Oakland, and the Jack London District—are battlegrounds this year, pitting candidates backed by large corporations against candidates supported by labor unions and progressive groups.

In District 3, unions announced their intention to unseat the incumbent councilmember by creating an IE named “The Oakland 2020 Committee to Replace Lynette Gibson McElhaney and Elect Carroll Fife and Rebecca Kaplan to the Oakland City Council.” McElhaney has represented D3 since 2013.

The Alameda Labor Council, which represents most of the unions in the county, appears to have spent $184,000 through this IE committee, mostly on ads supporting McElhaney’s challenger, Carroll Fife. This includes $40,000 in ads criticizing McElhaney’s record. (The committee hasn’t followed state disclosure rules requiring it to report the cumulative totals it has spent, so the exact numbers are unclear.)

The Oakland Chamber of Commerce has come to McElhaney’s defense. The business lobbying group has spent about $91,000 supporting McElhaney, and $24,000 on ads attacking Fife.

The organizers of the Alameda Labor Council IE committee said they got involved in this election because they view McElhaney as too friendly to big business, and because they believe Fife will do more to support working families. 

Fife “has the values that we as organized labor align with, and that’s why we’ve endorsed her and put so much resources behind her,” said Liz Ortega-Toro, the principal officer of the IE and the secretary-treasurer of the labor council.

The Chamber of Commerce has endorsed McElhaney, calling her “a bridge builder and advocate that balances neighborhood needs with the need of the local economy to create jobs, expand opportunities, and increase access to retail and services for local residents.”

McElhaney told The Oaklandside that the hundreds of thousands of dollars backing the council race threaten the fairness of the election. The initial $153,000 spending cap set for each District 3 candidate by the Public Ethics Commission represents a “reasonable” cost for getting the word out to voters, she said, and groups with specific agendas shouldn’t have outsize influence in a local race.

“Clearly I can’t control what the IEs are doing in this cycle,” McElhaney wrote in an email. “Special interests spending unlimited money—whether from the left or the right—is not beneficial to our democracy. I believe what this underscores is the need for campaign finance reform.”

Fife, however, said it’s “ridiculous” to compare spending by labor unions to corporate-backed IEs.

“There’s a world of difference between a bunch of unionized nurses, for example, getting together and pooling their dues to raise money for a candidate they support, and a corporation like Lyft or Uber trying to buy an election so they can make a bigger profit by exploiting workers,” she said in a statement sent by her campaign.

Money used by the union-controlled IE committee was contributed in small amounts by workers from their paychecks. The union SEIU 1021, which represents over 1,000 city employees, has made the largest contribution, $227,000, to the pro-Fife committee. The Chamber of Commerce’s committee reported raising most of its money from a few corporations, including the California Metals Corporation and CASS, Inc., which operate recycling centers in West Oakland, and from Lyft and several real estate developers.

In the City Council at-large race, candidate Derreck Johnson has the backing of several deep-pocketed IE committees. One of them, the Committee for an Affordable East Bay, was set up by several YIMBY pro-development activists and funded with a $100,000 contribution from a state IE committee created by Lyft. More recent contributions include $15,000 from billionaire tech investor and Marin County resident Ron Conway and $10,000 from developer Riaz Taplin.

Lyft has also spent another $349,000 directly from its statewide PAC, split between ads attacking the incumbent Kaplan and ads praising Johnson. The company has not responded to questions from The Oaklandside about why it’s dedicating approximately $450,000 to Oakland’s at-large elections, but Kaplan has attempted several times to create a city rideshare tax that would be paid by Lyft and Uber passengers. 

The same union-backed IE committee supporting Fife in D3 is supporting Kaplan and has run attack ads against Johnson. As of Oct. 27, the committee has spent approximately $202,000 in the at-large race.

Over $1 million in independent expenditures for 4 school board seats

Six groups are spending big to try and determine the winner of four wide-open seats on the Oakland school board. In these races, support is sharply divided between the teachers union and its allies, on one hand, and several pro-charter school groups and a local education policy organization on another. The pro-charter school groups have outspent the teachers union and its allies by four-to-one.

Major contributions from multiple billionaires, including former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and oil heiress Stacy Shusterman have helped bring the spending total in these races to almost $1.2 million so far. This has triggered the lifting of candidates’ spending limits in all four school board races.

The local education policy organization GO Public Schools has spent the most so far, having paid for $310,000 in ads supporting a slate of candidates including Austin Dannhaus in District 1, Maiya Edgerly and Mark Hurty in District 3, Leroy Gains in District 5, and Clifford Thompson in District 7. City records show that 95% of the committee’s money came from a single $300,000 contribution from Bloomberg.

Power2Families, a committee created this year by a former charter school executive, has spent $244,270 in support of the same slate backed by GO Public Schools, minus Hurty. The Committee for California, a pro-charter school group created by former Governor Jerry Brown, has spent $100,000 on the same group as Power2Families, and the Charter Public Schools Political Action Committee is so far focusing all its resources—$86,890—on one of the candidates from the same slate, Thompson in D7. 

The Oakland Education Association union has thrown its support behind a different slate of candidates—Mike Hutchinson in District 5, VanCedric Williams in District 3, Ben Tapscott in District 7, and Sam Davis in District 1. So far, the teachers’ union has paid $230,000 for mailers and other ads. 

Oakland Rising Action, the political arm of Oakland Rising, a 10-year-old non-profit organization supporting what it considers progressive left candidates, has spent about $11,000 supporting school board candidates, including Davis, Williams, and Hutchinson, and five other candidates running in the crowded district races.

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 lives in Oakland, grew up in Berkeley, and has only left her beloved East Bay once, to attend Pomona College.

Before joining The Oaklandside as News Editor, Darwin BondGraham was a freelance investigative reporter covering police and prosecutorial misconduct. He has reported on gun violence for The Guardian and was a staff writer for the East Bay Express. He holds a doctorate in sociology from UC Santa Barbara and was the co-recipient of the George Polk Award for local reporting in 2017. He is also the co-author of The Riders Come Out at Night, a book examining the Oakland Police Department's history of corruption and reform.