Oil and real estate interests pour money into Petaluma and Santa Rosa races

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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.

Powell also opposes the current Safeway gas station’s proposed location. He could support a different plan “if the location is appropriate for a gas station and doesn’t cause any added pressure on the infrastructure or on the community’s health,” he said.

Barrett said she was withholding judgment on the Safeway project until she has reviewed additional information. She does not believe the mailers were related to the Safeway project.

They promoted Harris’ experience and touted him as a unifier. They also extolled Powell’s local ties and anti-development positions.

Harris said he had “no idea” why the coalition had paid for the mailers. He decried the oil coalition’s campaign as “terrible.”

“I wish they would stay out,” he said. “I’m running my own campaign. I wish they would just go away.”

Powell said the independent campaign “seems shady,” but he believed the mailers he’s seen have accurately represented his positions. He suspected the mailers are related to the Safeway project.

“Obviously it’s a strange thing when someone speaks on your behalf without speaking to you, but I don’t feel like it’s misleading,” Powell said.

Besides the sheer amount of money being spent, Sobel said, the mailers are unusual for their supportive tone. Mailers from outside groups usually attack opponents, handling the “political dirty work” for those battling for seats, he said.

Still, the impact of the outside spending on the election at this juncture may be limited, he said.

“People at this point in time who are voting for Barrett are voting for Barrett,” Sobel said. “People who are voting for Harris are voting for Harris, and Powell gets some votes by the ‘Eeny, meeny, miny, moe’ process.”

Separately, a group associated with the National Association of Realtors has engaged in independent spending in Petaluma and Santa Rosa.

A political arm of the group, based in Chicago, spent more than $18,000 combined for online ads and mailers in support of Harris in the Petaluma mayoral race and council candidates King and Regan, according to the California Secretary of State’s office.

In Santa Rosa, the realtors’ fund also has spent roughly $13,000 in support of Dorothy Beattie, a City Council candidate vying against two other women for the District 4 seat representing northern and central parts of the city.

Lisa Badenfort, government affairs director for the North Bay Association of Realtors, said the four candidates backed by the group were expected to “make progress on homelessness and our housing shortage” and “protect and promote homeownership.” Contributions from local real estate professionals help fund the expenditures, she said, adding that the North Bay chapter directed the national entity’s spending. The group opposes rent control, a position shared by Beattie, a mortgage finance consultant and landlord.

In a third and smaller outside spending effort, a group linked to the North Bay Labor Council has reported spending $5,000 so far in hopes of sinking Santa Rosa’s $124 million housing bond measure, Measure N.

The Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria, an ally of the labor council, has separately poured $22,157 into advertising opposing Measure N, which aims to spur affordable housing development in the city.

Sobel, the Petaluma political analyst, said the rising influence of such independent expenditures made for increasingly opaque politics.

“The reason is a lot of the money that’s dumped into them allows for cloudy reporting,” he said. “It’s harder to figure out who’s behind them.”

Petaluma Argus-Courier Editor Matt Brown contributed reporting.

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