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Battle over SMART ballot measure nears $2.8 million in spending

With just over a week before ballots are due for California’s March primary, the rival campaigns in the clash over SMART’s sales tax renewal have spent lavishly to earn critical votes across Sonoma and Marin counties.

The two warring camps in the most expensive ballot measure in North Bay history combined to spend more than $2.2 million in only a month’s time, including on mailers and TV, radio and online advertising. Since the start of the year, total spending toward Sonoma- Marin Area Rail Transit’s Measure I has reached nearly $2.8 million, according to the latest campaign filings.

“I just find these numbers staggering for the issue being debated,” said political analyst Brian Sobel, a former Petaluma councilman. “This occurs in a situation where you have pro- and anti- groups that are so well-heeled, they have an ability to look at the opponent’s spending and decide to up the ante. And the ante has gone up over and over, like a high-stakes card game.”

The opposition campaign has been bankrolled by Molly Gallaher Flater, the 35-year-old daughter of prominent Sonoma County developer Bill Gallaher. All but about $6,000 of the group’s nearly $1.7 million in contributions has come from Flater, the chief operating officer of Windsor-based Gallaher Homes.

The supporter group seeking to see SMART’s quarter-cent sales tax extended another 30 years is approaching $1.2 million, the new filings show. The bulk of the pro-campaign’s funds arrived in a $1 million donation from the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria, owners of the casino outside of Rohnert Park.

During the four-week period that represents the thick of the race, the state campaign watchdogs were reviewing a complaint from the pro-group alleging campaign finance violations by the opposition camp. On Thursday, the California Fair Political Practices Commission ruled that, based on the evidence provided, it would not pursue a formal investigation.

From mid-January to mid-February, the two campaigns battling over whether the commuter rail system will receive the sales tax renewal together spent $1.4 million alone on competing literature arriving to resident’s mailboxes, including postage. The run of TV ads reached more than $765,000 with a slight edge to the opposition group, and a combined $393,000-plus in radio buys, campaign finance forms show.

The two groups also spent more than $100,000 on mid-race polling, the records show. The pro-campaign accounted for $30,000 of that spending, but has declined to say what the results reveal. Measure I needs a two-thirds majority among voters in the two counties to pass.

“The opposition has spent over $1.8 million and can get their own information. I’m not going to give information away about what we’re finding,” said SMART Chairman Eric Lucan, a Novato councilman who serves as co-chairman of the pro-Measure I group.

Polling conducted by both sides late last year told different stories about potential passage. A September survey conducted by a SMART ally, the North Bay Leadership Council, showed the ballot measure passing with 69% support among likely voters in the two counties. In November, the opposition campaign said results from its own poll showed support at 63% in Sonoma County and 61% in Marin County, meaning the measure would fail.

“Both sides are telling their supporters out there that they have a chance to win this thing,” Sobel said. “The closer you get to get to March 3, the lesser chance and population of voters you have to convince. At end of the day, this is a sales tax extension and it’s a phenomenal amount of money for a measure of this kind.”

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin Fixler at 707-521-5336 or kevin.fixler@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @kfixler.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This story has been updated to remove inaccurate information related to a transaction between the Yes on Measure I campaign and the political action committee for Sonoma County Conservation Action, a group that endorses Measure I.

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