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A version of this story originally ran February 8, 2020, on newsmakerswithjr.com.
Das Williams and Laura Capps are on pace to raise and spend over $1 million combined in their race for the 1st District seat on the Board of Supervisors, campaign finance reports show.
Three weeks before the decisive March 3 election, the two together have reported raising nearly $900,000. As they scramble to secure more donations to push out their messages on the airwaves and through the mails in the next 23 days, the rivals seem certain to shatter the spending record for a local supervisor’s race, the bitter Doreen Farr–Steve Pappas contest in 2008.
With a head start, Williams had $251,000 in his treasury before Capps declared her candidacy in August, and overall has collected significantly more, although she has out-raised him in the five months since entering the race.
Key data point: Williams and Capps at this point report comparable amounts of money left in the bank, as both spend the bulk of their contributions buying airtime for TV commercials, along with mailers, brochures, and online advertising.
Newly filed campaign documents also show that Williams is positioned to benefit from spending by a new independent expenditure campaign committee, which Capps in a debate last week alleged was set up to funnel money from the cannabis industry on his behalf into the contest.
A review of campaign filings — including their year-end reports for calendar 2019; a short-term report covering January 1-18, 2020; and statements of contributions of $1,000 and larger over the past two weeks — shows the following:
• Williams reported $159,015 cash on hand as of January 18. In total, he now has raised $550,180, including a series of large contributions that he has received in recent weeks, which are required to be reported within 24 hours. His January 18 statement itemized $279,980 in campaign spending, with more than $200,000 of it going to media advertising.
• Capps reported $181,922 cash on hand as of January 18. In total, she has reported raising $326,087 since entering the race on August 27, 2019, including more than half a dozen large contributions received and reported in recent days. Her January 18 report listed $114,264 in spending.
• A new, independent campaign committee, identified as Central Coast Residents Supporting Das Williams for Supervisor filed papers on January 31 to begin raising money on his behalf.
MYSTERIES OF MYSTERY COMMITTEE: It is unclear who created the committee, although Shawnda Deane, a Sacramento consultant well-known in political circles, who specializes in campaign finance filings and previously served as treasurer for Williams’s Assembly campaigns, is listed as “assistant treasurer” and apparently handled the paperwork.
The treasurer is listed as “William Gibson,” but his address is redacted on the filing documents and his identity could not be determined by post time.
Independent expenditure committees like Central Coast Residents are prohibited by law from coordinating their actions with a candidate they support.
The sole contributor to the committee to date is environmental and animal welfare advocate Lee Heller, a strong Williams supporter, who donated $10.000 to the independent committee. She said in an email interview that she has scrupulously avoided discussing the independent expenditure with Williams or his staff members.
“There is literally absolutely no coordination or even knowledge about my participation,” she said. “They know the law and I know the law.”
Heller said she was “approached” to give money to the committee, but she declined to say who made the approach or what pitch they made for her to contribute to the committee rather than donating directly to Williams’s campaign fund.
“I’m going to decline to comment on who approached me,” she wrote. “And there was no pitch. I don’t need to be pitched to. I understand the issues in the campaign too well for that to be a requirement.”
Lee said she knows neither Deane nor Gibson, and is unaware of anyone else who might contribute, including anyone from the cannabis industry.
“I do not know any of the parties that you mention … I do not know if anyone from the cannabis industry is involved; I have no connection to that industry. I do not know who else might be contributing.
“Because of the law about a ban in coordination between independent expenditure committees and campaigns, I am being extremely careful to remain in ignorance of anything that I might inadvertently communicate to the official campaign.”
“I certainly did not form this committee — I would have no idea how to do so,” she added. “And I do not normally contribute to independent expenditure committees, but I’ve been so offended by Laura‘s misrepresentations, both of her own support and in her attacks on Das, that when I was approached, I agreed to make a contribution.
“This is because I have known Das for a long time and have such respect for him as a public servant and legislator. He has been instrumental in solving a range of local problems and creative in his approach to issues of international significance, like climate change and sustainability …
“I don’t like dishonesty and slander in politics and that is what I’m seeing in the first district [sic] race on the part of the Capps campaign,” Heller wrote.
CLASH OVER THE IE: Capps and Williams had a sharp exchange about the independent expenditure committee during a debate last week, sponsored by the Santa Barbara Independent, after the co-moderator (we name no names) raised the issue.
(A video recording of the debate is posted on the Indy‘s Facebook page here).
Williams said last summer that he would no longer accept money from individuals or businesses affected by the county’s controversial cannabis ordinance.
He announced that decision after being criticized for accepting $62,000 from such interests while writing and enacting the law; however, he said he chose to stop taking the money because the supervisors have begun the process of adjudicating permit and appeal issues about specific marijuana operations that might present the perception of a conflict of interest.
In the debate, Capps attacked him for not objecting to the formation of the committee, alleging that it was set up to get around his pledge about cannabis donations.
“I think it’s important for my opponent to explain why, in a county where we have no [campaign contribution] limits, he’s allowed a PAC [political action committee] to be established for him.
“He literally can take as much money as he wants from any industry, from any individual. Why then was a PAC just formed on January 30? Why, why do we need more money to go into the race when he’s already received $62,000 from the cannabis industry?”
Williams did not directly or specifically respond to questions about the new committee supporting him, but rather said the existence of independent expenditure groups provides evidence in support of his backing of public financing of campaigns.
He also insinuated that Capps might benefit from a similar committee, although Newsmakers found no record of any such group filing with county or state election offices.
“The first thing that it came out with,” he said, speaking of the new committee, “was a poll. Two weeks ago, there was another mysterious poll, by another mysterious possible committee. You know, I think these both illustrate the reason why you can’t just have campaign finance limits without public financing, because then the entire campaign, and all the money in the campaign, goes into these independent committees.”
“I can’t control the message” of the committee, he added, turning to Capps to say, “if the other one is an independent committee for you, you can’t control the message.”
“It’s not,” Capps shot back.
“How can you know that?” Williams said heatedly. “Right? You don’t know that. You can’t know that because that’s why it’s an independent expenditure. If you did know that, you would be breaking the law.”
At this point, several people among the audience at the debate at the Franklin Community Center expressed displeasure with Williams’s commentary.
“Follow the money,” shouted one person.
“That’s just hogwash,” Capps responded when Williams finished. “The L.A. Times caught him taking $62,000 from a special interest and he said, ‘I won’t take it anymore.’
“The only logical reason for his allowance of a PAC to be formed is so that cannabis money can come through another way. That is the only thing that makes sense to reasonable people.”
“We’ve had too much transactional politics; he should keep his word and publicly denounce the PAC and ask them to shut it down.” Capps said later.
Concerned Central Coast Residents is the second murky independent expenditure committee set up on Williams’s behalf; Newsmakers previously reported on another committee, established in the name of Montecito developer Ron Pulice, who denied knowledge of it.
WHERE THE CASH COMES FROM: Veterans of local political wars pointed to the 2008 race between former Supervisor Doreen Farr and challenger Steve Pappas, which approached $1 million, as the sole previous comparable campaign.
That contest, however, included both primary and general elections — the Williams-Capps battle is a one-on-one showdown that will be decided in the March primary.
In this year’s 1st District race, Capps has proposed a set of campaign finance reforms aimed at limiting the amount, and restricting the sources of, money in county elections. Among the changes she proposed is a ban on cash flowing to supervisors and candidates from organizations and individuals with business before the board.
Such a change would affect a number of sources of Williams’s campaign contributions.
For example, his report shows he has received at least $57,900 from public employee and crafts unions; beyond approving wage and benefits contracts with some of these unions, Williams also led the way in pushing through a new Project Labor Agreement system for contracting on county public works contracts, which is likely to benefit a number of these unions.
He also received $20,000 from the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Mission Indians, with which the supervisors have negotiated and made decisions over several land use issues.
For her part, Capps has received a large number of individual contributions, a large majority of them of $500 or less, but reported few organizational donations.
Her largest donors are philanthropist Sara Miller McCune, who has given $25,000, and Lynda Weinman, the founder of the online educational company Lynda.com, with $10,000.
She also has received $5,000 from education philanthropist Lilian Lovelace and the same amount from Montecito resident and actor Jeff Bridges and his wife, Susan.
A former speechwriter for former President Clinton and the late Ted Kennedy, she also received a number of contributions from Washington figures, including $1,000 from Massachusetts Senator John Kerrey, $1,000 from ex-White House press secretary Mike McCurry, and $500 from Harold Ickes, Clinton’s former deputy chief of staff.
Both candidates so far have spent heavily on production and purchase of airtime for TV ads, with Williams reporting about $235,000 for such services; Capps reported about $40,000 in her January 18 filing for TV, but told Newsmakers subsequent spending has brought that total to $114,000.