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High Rollers — A Closer Look At Some Of The Sources Underwriting California’s Costly Campaign Season

  

Laurel Rosenhall and Matt Levin, CALmatters

With California’s primary just days away, here’s a sampling of some of the players spending big to influence your vote:

Angelo K. Tsakopoulos and Eleni Kounalakis

How much have they spent? About $9.2 million

On what? Her run for lieutenant governor

What’s the deal? Tsakopoulos, a Sacramento developer and longtime donor to Democratic candidates, is digging deep to help his daughter, Kounalakis, become California’s next lieutenant governor. Tsakopoulos’ rags-to-riches story started after World War II, when he left Greece for the United States. He worked as a waiter and a field worker before launching what would become one of the biggest land development companies in California, where he eventually made his daughter the company president. 

“He used to say that I was his best general,” she told the San Francisco Chronicle in 2011.

Now he’s the largest donor to an independent committee working to elect her, giving almost $5 million as of May 30. His largesse has become a source of criticism from her Democratic opponents. One of them, Jeff Bleich, said at a recent debate that the millions of dollars from “one commercial developer in your family, that’s going to affect how you operate on the (State Lands Commission) with respect to questions involving housing development.”

Kounalakis did not directly respond, but criticized a Republican opponent, Cole Harris, for funding his own campaign with at least $2.2 million. “I hope everybody up here agrees we need campaign finance reform,” she said in reference to Harris’ self-funding. Yet Kounalakis has written her own campaign checks totaling almost $4.2 million.

John Cox

How much has he spent? $4.9 million

On what? His run for governor

What’s the deal? A wealthy San Diego-area businessman who is the leading Republican candidate for governor, Cox is the latest in a string of GOP candidates to run for California’s highest office using their own fortunes. It did the trick for movie star Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2003 but hasn’t worked since. In the last two elections, former investment banker Neel Kashkari, former eBay CEO Meg Whitman and tech entrepreneur Steve Poizner lost their bids for governor despite pouring many of their own millions into their campaigns. 

“The history of self-funders in this state is not good,” Cox acknowledged in an interview with CALmatters. But he said he jump-started his campaign funding in hopes “that the people of this state will respond because they want to see a positive change.”

As of May 30, about 77 percent of Cox’s campaign money had come from himself.

Reed Hastings

How much has he spent? About $13.5 million

On what? Supporting Democrats Antonio Villaraigosa for governor and Marshall Tuck for state schools superintendent, as well as various legislative races

What’s the deal? Once a math teacher, Hastings went on to become a tech entrepreneur and is now CEO of Netflix. But he’s never given up his interest in schools. For more than 20 years, he’s  pushed changes to public education, served on the state education board, and helped craft a 1998 deal allowing more charter schools in California. Because charters are public schools exempted from many of the rules governing traditional schools and mostly hire non-union teachers, he’s often at odds with the state’s teachers union.

Hastings gave $7 million to an independent committee backing Antonio Villaraigosa for governor, making him the group’s largest donor. Villaraigosa was the Assembly speaker when Hastings negotiated the charter schools expansion, and Hastings recently told CALmatters that Villaraigosa was “instrumental” to that effort.

He has also given about $3.4 million to a committee run by the charter schools association, which is spending heavily in legislative and school board races, and donated $14,600 to Marshall Tuck’s campaign for state schools superintendent.

Other wealthy charter supporters emerging as prime California campaign donors include members of the Walton family, heirs to the Walmart fortune, together donating more than $6 million; businessman Bill Bloomfield at more than $5.5 million, venture capitalist Arthur Rock at nearly $5 million, developer Eli Broad at more than $6 million and investor William E. Oberndorf at $3.5 million.

California Teachers Association

How much has it spent? About $5.2 million

On what? Supporting Democrats Gavin Newsom for governor, Tony Thurmond for state schools superintendent, and various legislative races

What’s the deal? Teachers have long enjoyed enormous political clout in California. But confronting a well-funded push for charter schools, teachers are locked in a battle over how California educates roughly 6 million students.

The two camps feud over many policies in a state where less than half of students meet reading and math standards. Unionized teachers generally call for more funding for preschools and support programs; charter advocates say kids would learn more if schools could change some union rules about how teachers are hired and fired.

The Legislature confronts such issues every year. The governor can play a big role in shaping education policy, with the power to sign and veto legislation, enact an annual budget to fund 10,000 public schools, and appoint members to the state board of education. Teachers have endorsed Newsom, who has said repeatedly on the campaign trail that under his leadership, California “will attract teachers, not attack teachers.” They’ve given $1 million to an independent committee backing Newsom.

“He supports charter schools but wants them to be held to the same accountability standards as neighborhood public schools,” said union spokeswoman Claudia Briggs.

The superintendent’s role has largely been ministerial, but both candidates running this year say they want to take a more activist approach. Teachers have given more than $2 million to a committee working to elect Thurmond, an assemblyman who has carried many bills the union supported. They’ve also given at least $1.9 to the California Democratic Party.

Other labor unions are also heavily investing in this election. The Service Employees International Union, which also endorsed Newsom, has spent about $3 million so far.

Chevron

How much has it spent? About $4.2 million

On what? Donations to the California Republican Party and various legislative races

What’s the deal? Chevron is a California-based oil company with a huge stake in the decisions that come out of Sacramento. It routinely lobbies on air pollution, climate change and offshore drilling bills, and was a key player in last year’s negotiations over extending California’s cap-and-trade program.

The company has given almost $1.9 million to independent committees in legislative races, including the re-election bid of Mojave Desert-area Assemblyman Chad Mayes, who led Republicans in negotiating a bipartisan deal to extend cap and trade. Other committees Chevron gave to oppose the re-election of Democratic Sen. Tony Mendoza, who resigned after an investigation found he had harassed several employees, and support Vanessa Delgado, one of several Democrats running to take his place representing southeast Los Angeles. The committees are also spending to elect Democrat Susan Rubio to a Senate seat representing the San Gabriel Valley.

Other oil companies are donating to the same committees. So far in this election cycle, Valero has spent more than $2.2 million, Phillips 66 has spent more than $2 million and Tesoro has spent $1.1 million.

Though the the California Democratic Party decided, after pressure from environmentalists, to eschew donations from oil companies, the California GOP has no such restriction. Chevron has gifted the state party $1.2 million this cycle.

Our methodology:

Keep in mind that this is a sampling, not a ranked tally. Companies like PG&E and AT&T have each spent more than $1 million so far on California races, as have trade associations for doctors, dentists and Realtors. Health insurer Blue Shield has spent more than $2.3 million, most of it to support Newsom and oppose John Chiang, one of his Democratic opponents.

We isolated some of the top spenders in California's primary election by reviewing: major contributions to independent expenditure committees, major contributions to political action committees that in turn contribute to independent expenditure committees, contributions to various state offices including candidates for governor and the state legislature, and donations to state Democratic and Republican parties. They cover the period from January 1, 2017 to May 30, 2018 and do not include donations to ballot measures. To isolate the biggest donors, we also excluded donations of less than $50,000 to the state political parties and those that added up to less than $100,000 across multiple campaigns. 

CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

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