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Why developer Bill Gallaher and his family put big money behind long shot candidate in Newsom recall

How The Press Democrat reported this story

The Press Democrat reviewed dozens of state campaign filings to learn the scope and extent of contributions made by Gallaher family members and their business associates to candidate Ted Gaines.

Reporter Ethan Varian interviewed political experts to better understand the Gaines campaign as well as potential reasons why donors may give to a candidate for state office.

Varian sought comment from Gaines and his representatives as well as all Gallaher family members and business associates identified in campaign fillings. Only Bill Gallaher and his wife Cindy Gallaher responded with a joint written statement. Cindy provided additional comments in interviews.

His gubernatorial candidacy is “one of the biggest mysteries of the recall,” according to one political expert.

He’s made few campaign appearances, participated in no major debates and is polling at just 1%.

Yet Ted Gaines has raked in more than a quarter-million dollars of campaign cash — nearly 90% of his total war chest — from one of Sonoma County’s most well-known and deep-pocketed developers and his family members, as well as one of his employees and a business associate.

His total haul makes him the eighth highest fundraiser this year out of the 46 California recall candidates, according to campaign filings.

It’s not uncommon for wealthy donors to back long-shot or losing candidates. But the contributions from Bill Gallaher, his wife Cindy, five of their relatives and two business associates raise questions about why they would pour money into a candidate who, while having significant governing experience, appears not to have mounted a serious campaign.

“He's seems to be M.I.A. on the campaign trail,” said Steven Maviglio, a longtime Democratic political consultant in California who served as former Gov. Gray Davis’ press secretary. “It seems there's literally no attempt to be successful.”

“When somebody is giving contributions to a campaign that doesn’t exist, it certainly raises questions,” Maviglio said.

Gaines, a former state lawmaker who lives in El Dorado County, is an elected member of the state’s Board of Equalization who claims to be the “highest-ranking Republican in California.”

The board has the power to make tax decisions that could affect properties across the state, including those owned by Gallaher. Gaines has spent about $209,000 so far on his gubernatorial bid, according to campaign filings. He can use whatever is left over for another campaign or other political purpose.

In interviews with The Press Democrat, Cindy Gallaher said any influence Gaines may have over state property tax oversight did not play a role in the her family’s decision to back the candidate.

“That had nothing to do with it,” she said in an interview.

Gallaher said she and her husband, both registered Democrats according to county records, are supporting the Republican Gaines because they agree with many of his pro-business policies. They are seeking to oust Gov. Gavin Newsom, she said, because he has failed to tackle many of the state’s most pressing issues, including homelessness and rising housing costs.

“We feel like things are not getting better, so we’re ready for a change,” Gallaher said.

Calls to Gaines’ office seeking comment were referred to his campaign spokesman, Thomas Ingram. Ingram did not respond to multiple emails, texts and voice mails seeking comment this week and last. On Thursday, his voicemail box was full and not accepting messages.

Heading into Tuesday’s election, Gaines hasn’t received more than a few percentage points of support in most polling since announcing his recall candidacy in July.

Bill and Cindy Gallaher, in a written statement, acknowledged Gaines is unlikely to succeed in replacing Newsom.

“We recognize that the chances of the recall and his win are both slim, but as is known from our history, we are willing to put our resources behind our beliefs, as unpopular locally as they may prove to be,” the statement said.

Gallaher, his relatives and business associates have together donated $251,800 to Gaines, according to campaign filings. There is no indication they have donated to any other candidate in the recall, and it is not the first time the Gallaher family has donated to Gaines.

Gallaher and his family members, including his daughter Molly Flater and son-in-law Scott Flater have poured unprecedented sums of money into Sonoma County political campaigns in recent years.

A Sonoma County native, Bill Gallaher has developed around 50 senior and assisted living facilities across California and Nevada through his retirement home company Oakmont Senior Living, according to the company’s website. He is also founder and chairman of Santa Rosa-based Poppy Bank.

Gallaher is single-handedly bankrolling an effort to recall Sonoma County District Attorney Jill Ravitch, slated for the same Sept. 14 ballot as Newsom. He has contributed more than $1.7 million to the effort, according to the latest campaign finance filings.

Ravitch's office prosecuted Oakmont Senior Living and two of its affiliates over its abandonment of residents in two Santa Rosa care homes during the 2017 Tubbs fire. Ravitch and her supporters contend the recall is a case of a wealthy developer seeking vengeance after being held accountable for his companies’ failures. His management company paid $500,000 to settle the case.

How The Press Democrat reported this story

The Press Democrat reviewed dozens of state campaign filings to learn the scope and extent of contributions made by Gallaher family members and their business associates to candidate Ted Gaines.

Reporter Ethan Varian interviewed political experts to better understand the Gaines campaign as well as potential reasons why donors may give to a candidate for state office.

Varian sought comment from Gaines and his representatives as well as all Gallaher family members and business associates identified in campaign fillings. Only Bill Gallaher and his wife Cindy Gallaher responded with a joint written statement. Cindy provided additional comments in interviews.

In a March 2020 election, Molly Flater donated $1.8 million to the opposition campaign against an early tax extension for SMART, the North Bay’s passenger rail system. In 2016, Flater’s husband, Scott, who described himself in campaign filings as a “homemaker,” reported more than $200,000 in independent political spending in support of three candidates running for Santa Rosa City Council.

Cindy Gallaher said she and her husband met Gaines a few years ago when he attended the openings of some of the couple’s Sacramento-area senior homes located in Gaines’ district for the Board of Equalization and his former state Senate district. She said she could not remember exactly when Gaines attended those events or at what senior home facilities they took place.

At those events and in subsequent meetings, Gallaher said they found Gaines to be a personable elected official who shared many of their values, pointing to the written statement she provided.

“Ted has governing experience, is respectful, responsive and willing to listen,” the statement said.

Donna Crane, a San Jose State University political science lecturer with over two decades of experience as a legislative strategist and lobbyist in Washington D.C., said it’s not uncommon for donors to pick a candidate in large part because they have a positive relationship.

“People contribute to political campaigns for a short list of reasons and that includes personal affinity … and that's not as odd as you would think,” Crane said.

On his campaign site, Gaines, who has a background in the insurance industry, says his main policy issues include opposing new tax increases, repealing the state’s gas tax, increasing housing production and investing in law enforcement and public safety.

“California government micromanages our citizens,” Gaines said in a July statement announcing his recall campaign. “Sacramento thinks it knows best how to run everyone's lives and businesses and it's not shy about exercising its power. But it's time to step back and look at the effects of the policies coming out of Sacramento, not just their intentions.”

As a Board of Equalization member, Gaines helps oversee and ensure compliance by the state’s county assessors and local assessment appeals boards.

Oakmont Senior Living has around a dozen facilities in Gaines district, which includes about 30 counties in the eastern half of the state stretching from Siskiyou to San Bernardino counties.

Aside from Bill and Cindy, the remaining five Gallaher family members who made contributions to Gaines’ campaign could not be reached or declined to comment on their support. They include Bill Gallaher’s son Will Gallaher; his daughters Zume Gallaher, Nicole Gallaher and Molly Flater; and Flater’s husband Scott.

Cindy Gallaher declined to comment on why her children and son-in-law are supporting Gaines. However her daughter, Molly Flater, an executive at multiple Gallaher companies, had reviewed the written statement sent to The Press Democrat, she said.

Contacted by phone last week, Will Gallaher, declined to comment on his contribution. Multiple attempts to reach Zume, Nicole, Molly and Scott by phone, email and social media were unsuccessful.

All but Zume, who gave $20,000, made the max campaign contribution of $32,400.

Cindy Gallaher said the family members all donated out of their own pockets. “It's all their own money,” she said.

The Gallaher parents also each made the highest individual donation allowed under state regulations, according to campaign reports.

Ajaib Bahadare, a Poppy Bank board member according to the bank’s website, donated $32,400 to the Gaines campaign, according to state filings. Multiple attempts to reach him through Poppy Bank, his real estate company and by email were unsuccessful.

Komron Shahhosseini, a longtime employee and regional director for one of the Gallaher’s development companies and a board member of Poppy Bank, contributed $5,000. Reached by phone last week, Shahhosseini, a former Sonoma County planning commissioner, declined to comment.

Cindy Gallaher said she was unaware the family and its business associates made up the majority of Gaines’ donations.

Family members have given to his campaigns in the past.

In August, Molly Flater gave $8,100 to Gaines’ active campaign to defend his equalization board seat in the 2022 election, according to state filings. During Gaines’ first run for the board in 2018, Flater and her parents gave a total of $21,900.

That same year, Flater, her parents and her husband Scott contributed $35,200 to Gaines’ wife, Beth, in an unsuccessful run for state Senate in 2018.

So far, Gaines reelection campaign for his board seat, which is separate from his recall campaign, has just over $90,000 cash on hand, according to state filings.

In his recall bid, Gaines had as of Wednesday spent $209,461, mainly on “radio airtime and production costs,” leaving $72,235 left as the election approaches.

Gaines is allowed to transfer money from his recall campaign to his Board of Equalization campaign with some restrictions, according to California Fair Political Practices Commission spokesperson Jay Wierenga.

The candidate may also use any surplus funds “on anything that is reasonably related to a political, legislative, or governmental purpose, if there is no personal benefit to an officer of the committee,” according to commission documents.

Gaines had just less than 1% support among likely voters as of Sept. 7, according to a Suffolk University poll.

With just days before the recall election, 55% of voters want to keep Newsom in office, while 42% want to see him removed, according to the latest results from online polling aggregate FiveThirtyEight. Should Newsom be recalled, conservative radio host Larry Elder is leading the 46-candidate race to replace him with 26% approval, according to the site.

In 2016, Bill Gallaher and Scott Flater sued The Press Democrat over four stories detailing the more than $200,000 Flater spent on Santa Rosa City Council races.

The defamation suit was dismissed in a unanimous decision by the 1st District Court of Appeals in San Francisco.

You can reach Staff Writer Ethan Varian at ethan.varian@pressdemocrat.com or 707-521-5412. On Twitter @ethanvarian

Ethan Varian

Housing and homelessness, The Press Democrat 

I've lived in California for most of my life, and it's hard for me to remember when the state hasn't been in a housing crisis. Here in Sonoma County, sharply rising housing costs and increasing homelessness are reshaping what was long considered the Bay Area’s “affordable” region. As The Press Democrat’s housing and homelessness reporter, I aim to cover how officials, advocates, developers and residents are reacting to and experiencing the ongoing crisis.

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