Oil and real estate interests pour money into Petaluma and Santa Rosa races
More than $100,000 from oil and real estate interests has been funneled into city council races in Sonoma County’s two largest cities, highlighting how outside groups have ponied up to influence voters in the Nov. 6 election.
Of the pair of independent expenditure campaigns, the most visible has been in Petaluma, where a committee backed by several large oil companies has poured more than $78,000 into the race for mayor, according to campaign finance records.
The second spending effort is by a national real estate group that has spent more than $31,000 in favor of several city council candidates in Petaluma and Santa Rosa.
In Petaluma especially, the rush of outside spending has caused a stir. The two campaigns there have separately generated mailers supporting two mayoral candidates - Mike Harris and Brian Powell - and online ads and mailers supporting Harris and two others running for council seats, incumbent Dave King and candidate Michael Regan.
Brian Sobel, a Petaluma-?based political analyst and former city councilman, called the level of outside spending in the city election unprecedented.
“It’s not been in Petaluma’s tradition or history to have independent expenditures committees singling out individual candidates and supporting them,” Sobel said.
Campaign finance rules limit individual donations directly to candidate campaigns to $200 in Petaluma and $500 in Santa Rosa per donor per election cycle. But there is no cap on how much money individuals or organizations can dole out through independent expenditure committees. The committees must report their spending to election authorities and are barred from coordinating with candidates.
Independent expenditures to sway elections are not new, though their prevalence and power has increased since the 2010 Citizens United case before the U.S. Supreme Court. It did away with independent political spending limits for corporations, labor groups and other entities on free-speech grounds.
The group responsible for the largest amount of spending in Petaluma this year goes by the name Coalition to Restore California’s Middle Class, Including Energy Companies who Produce Gas, Oil, Jobs and Pay Taxes. The committee has received millions of dollars from oil giants Chevron, Valero Energy and Phillips 66, according to campaign finance documents filed with the California Secretary of State.
The committee reported spending about $62,300 as of Friday to support Harris, a former councilman who is making his second bid for the mayor’s post. The oil-backed group also reported spending $15,800 in favor of Powell, a political newcomer and environmentalist who has embraced a strong anti-growth platform for the city.
Powell, Harris and ?Councilwoman Teresa Barrett are vying to replace Mayor David Glass, who is retiring.
The oil-backed coalition’s motives were not immediately obvious.
The phone number listed on the filings is associated with the San Rafael office of Nielsen Merksamer, a Bay Area-based law and lobbying firm that specializes in political and public-sector cases. Chevron Corp., Valero Energy and Philips 66 are listed as clients on the firm’s website.
Steven Lucas, the coalition’s registered agent, did not respond to requests for comment.
Barrett said she believed the outside spending was an attempt to bolster the chances of her rivals for the mayor’s post and deny her a public platform. Barrett is a strong pro-environment voice who serves on the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, which regulates regional refineries. The district’s leadership comprises local elected officials, and Barrett would have to step down if she came up short in the mayor’s race, she noted.
The spending is “chump change” for oil companies, but “it’s a lot of money for us,” Barrett said, noting the city’s $200 contribution limit.
Others said the oil coalition’s spending could also be connected to a pending Petaluma project: a ?16-pump Safeway gas station planned for the Washington Square Shopping Center that has been approved by the city’s Planning Commission.
The City Council is poised next month to take up the Safeway project after residents questioned the community’s need for the proposed gas station, citing the pumps’ proximity to day care, park and school sites, and other potential traffic and health impacts.
“There’s a reason these (mailers) are out … When I see Valero and Chevron, that tells me it’s about gas, and there’s only one issue about gas in town,” Sobel said.
Harris said he is not in favor of the Safeway gas station at the proposed location, but isn’t opposed to the company building a gas station if it’s “in the right location” with fewer traffic impacts and further away from schools.