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Footing the bill 

Local money fuels big campaigns and more is in the pipeline

The debates are over and the confetti has settled for a little while. Now it’s campaign crunch time, not just for candidates, but also for their donors.

Since early 2007, contributors on the Central Coast have pumped thousands of dollars into political campaigns. Funds from individuals and committees will likely continue to flow even beyond Election Day.

According to Derek Cressman of the political watchdog group Common Cause, the last stretch before the polls open is prime time for cronyism and slick political tactics.

When money comes in at the last minute it can sometimes avoid disclosure before the election, Cressman said. Although TV ads often require more prep time, mailers and “robo calls” can be paid for immediately, within days of the election, and there’s almost no way to find out who paid for them before voters are swayed.

Money continues to come in even after the election, he went on. As long as a campaign committee is on file, donations can be collected. Often excess money rolls into another run for office, or a shot at a different office.

“They’re going to find their way into the system and have undue influence,” Cressman said of such last-minute donors.

The problem is that the people giving the money have a leg up on those trying to track it. There’s almost always a loophole to get around contribution limits.

There’s also a seemingly infinite number of ways to hide money. A common method is to funnel money through multiple political action committees (PACs), Cressman said.

There are two types of campaign money: contributions and expenditures. Although contributions have limits, in California there are no limits on expenditures. Contributions go directly into a campaign fund; expenditures are often made on behalf of a candidate or cause. The difference is subtle, but the political outcomes are consistent.

The California Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) was established in 1974 in part to prevent corrupt campaign donations. However, the FPPC is not entirely free to draft new regulations or close loopholes. Roman Porter, a commission spokesperson, said the FPPC works within its legal boundaries to fully disclose campaign money and impose limits, but it cannot work outside those boundaries without a court decision, proposition, or move by the commission chair.

Individuals in SLO County are bound by state and federal limits, but there’s a lot of local money in a lot of campaigns.

Barack Obama’s campaign received $365,014 in local individual donations, according to the Federal Elections Commission. John McCain received less than half that amount from local individual donations: $161,067.

The totals seem at odds with the voter rolls. The California Secretary of State reported on Sept. 5 that there are nearly 8,000 more registered Republican voters than Democrats in San Luis Obispo County. Republicans account for 41 percent of SLO County voters.

A representative from the San Luis Obispo Democrats believed it was a sign that the political landscape is changing. A representative from the Republican Party of San Luis Obispo could not be reached before press time.

Democratic Congresswoman Lois Capps raked in about $51,000 from SLO County donors. Her Republican challenger, Matt T. Kokkonen, a Central Coast financial planner, took in just over $2,000 from SLO County.

Capps’ individual donors included an investor from Pismo Beach who gave $4,450, most recently giving $1,000 on Sept. 26. A retired judge from Cambria, gave $4,425 and two attorneys from a SLO law firm together gave $4,000.

At the state level, Republican State Senator Abel Maldonado will fight for his last senate term against registered Independent Jim Fitzgerald.

While Maldonado received about $72,000 from SLO County individuals, Fitzgerald’s campaign is funded by only $64,020 in personal loans and one $20 donation from himself.

Republican incumbent Assemblyman Sam Blakeslee, who is vying for his last term, collected more than $40,000 from SLO County individuals. Blakeslee’s Democratic challenger, Robert Cuthbert, received about $4,500 from SLO County individuals, the largest of which was $1,010 donation from SLO ranchers.

As campaigns enter the final stretch before the election, money will continue to flow. Cressman lamented that identifying the last-minute contributions from wealthy donors to campaigns can be very tricky.

“A lot of it, quite frankly, you only spot after the fact when you want to go back and really look at something.”


 Writer Colin Rigley can be reached at crigley@newtimesslo.com.

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