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Democrats Spent 37 Times The Contribution Limit On Nathan Fletcher. And It’s Legal.

San Diego County Board of Supervisors candidate Nathan Fletcher and his wife, Democratic Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher, follow the primary election results on June 5, 2018.
Megan Wood
San Diego County Board of Supervisors candidate Nathan Fletcher and his wife, Democratic Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher, follow the primary election results on June 5, 2018.
Democrats Spent 37 Times The Contribution Limit On Nathan Fletcher. And It’s Legal.
Democrats Spent 37 Times The Contribution Limit On Nathan Fletcher. And It’s Legal. GUEST: Jill Castellano, reporter, inewsource

This is KPBS midday edition. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. Politicians get campaign money from all kinds of sources. But this year the husband wife team of Nathan Fletcher and Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher have used a strategy that's getting special notice as he runs for San Diego County supervisor. I knew sors reporter Jill Castellano explains. On election night in San Diego the place to be in Golden Hall. Politicians gathered with their families advisers and supporters as they wait for the results to vote. On the night of the June 5th primary election one of the most talked about politicians hoping for a win was former State Assemblyman Nathan Fletcher Fletcher running for the 4th District Supervisor. The county Board of Supervisors is made up of five members who are all Republicans. They make policies on things such as transportation housing and public health. If elected Fletcher would likely be the only Democrat on the board. Looks like you're going to be around for another campaign taking over. Well tonight I mean it's so incurred standing behind Fletcher was his wife. State Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher who has been helping his campaign in an uncommon way. So far she has given 365 thousand dollars to the county Democratic Party in New Source Analysis found that is three times more than any other donor. And whereas most of the party's money going to help her husband. I recall a similar situation Bob Stern is one of California's best known experts on money in politics. He helped write the state's campaign finance law and says the Fletcher's approach is unusual in that they're able to use their connections in Sacramento to help Nathan's campaign. What's happening is basically she's going to people in Sacramento and give to my campaign committee that she's thinking about giving the party was pretty about supporting her husband the Democratic party can decide what to do with Gonzales. Fletcher's money and though it can't contribute a lot to Nathan's campaign directly it can help him in another way. What the parties have is a loophole a legal loophole by the way. Nothing illegal about this. This loophole allows parties to spend unlimited cash to help a candidate get elected. If it's only using the money to send messages to its members fliers phone calls. It's all good as long as the party is only communicating with registered Democrats. Here's how UC San Diego political science professor Thad Kowsar explains it. They can't buy TV ads they can't buy radio ads that broadcast their message. All across San Diego they've got to speak just to the members of their party the Democratic Party has spent almost a million dollars supporting Nathan Flattr this way in 2018. That's more money than the parties have spent on any other candidate this decade. But it's not just the Democrats. The Republican Party uses this technique too. Well I walked from home here today. Former District Attorney Bonnie Doumanis finished second to Fletcher in the primary. It's not that we recently spoke to her at her downtown campaign office about what to expect in the November runoff. The Republican Party spent one hundred and sixty thousand dollars to support Doumanis in the same way the Democrats did with Fletcher but Doumanis said her campaign isn't focused on the money. Well I spend every day raising money but also getting out and I'm not worried about that aspect because I thought you know money don't buy you love. OK. So I think that it's more the quality of the candidate. Good to have you back on the line. We kind of interrupted the Fletchers during a family vacation. Matheny camping with my family. Nathan Fletcher says the Democratic Party money helped drown out the negative ads that Republican leaning groups put out about him. But he wouldn't talk about his wife's donations. I let her speak for herself. A strong bold dynamic woman who doesn't mean her husband speak for her. GONZALES Fletcher says she was simply doing what's allowed under the law which has been in place for decades. I don't think it fell upon the line when the law was written it was clear that there can be money going into the party the party used unlimited amounts of money to their own members unless something major changes in California law. Political parties will keep spending money through these kinds of strategies and the Democratic and Republican parties are expected to spend a lot more cash in the supervisor's race all the way up until the November election. Joining me now is a news source reporter Jill Castellano. And Jill welcome. Thank you so much. You said the Democratic Party has spent almost a million dollars supporting Nathan Fletcher for county supervisor more money than the parties have spent on anyone else this decade. What are they spending all that money on. That's a really good question because that's kind of the interesting thing is they can't spend this money on TV ads they can't spend it on radio ads. They can only spend it on these things called Member Communications to communicate with members of the party. And yet they've managed to spend six dollars per Democrat in this race in that district which is in central San Diego. So what are they spending that money on. Mostly they're spending that money on flyers. It's something that's kind of come back into fashion in recent years to mail people just a bunch of different flyers and hopefully they'll look at those fires for a second or two before they toss them and you know get the idea of who you want them to vote for name recognition get that out there over and over and over again. Now both the Republicans and Democrats use Member Communications when the race matters to them one has the Republican Party relied heavily on this strategy Member Communications. A good example of this is just after San Diego created their new limits on political party spending. They said you can't spend more than twenty thousand dollars in a mayor's race if you're a political party you can't donate more than 20000 dollars to a mayor's candidate. But three weeks later San Diego Mayor Bob Filner resigned. He is facing sexual harassment allegations. He was the city's first Democratic mayor in 20 years. And the Republicans really wanted to take that seat back. So how did they do that through member communications so they didn't really need to pay attention to these limits at all because they could spend unlimited money through this other strategy. They spent six hundred thousand dollars supporting Kevin Faulkner in that special election who ended up winning. And. Why should voters care about how the parties spend their money. Well the political parties are hugely powerful organizations. Let's say you had five Democrats who were all trying to run in a primary election in San Diego. The one who got the endorsement and the funding from the Democratic Party is probably going to be the one who comes out on top among those people. And that's because we rely on and trust these political parties to tell us who the best candidates are and who agrees with our values and if they can spend unlimited amounts of money telling us who to vote for we should probably pay attention to where they're getting that money from and why they're endorsing who they're endorsing. So in the case of Nathan Fletcher who's getting the most money from the Democratic Party it's pretty interesting that his wife is the one who's giving the most money to the Democratic Party. That's something I think voters should be aware of when they go to the polls. Jill what do the political parties themselves say about their spending. Well I did interview the chairs of both political parties for this project and they've definitely defended their spending. They said this is a totally legitimate practice. It's fair for us to do this and of course we care about this race. The supervisor's race. So we're going to do that. Tony Kreviazuk who's the chair of the Republican Party said member communications are free speech. He said it's like having a chess club. It's nothing different of course we can spend our money to talk to the members of our party. Now this city and county of San Diego have spent years trying unsuccessfully to crack down on political party spending. What's the history there. So many years ago the city and county had these really really strict limits on political party spending. Political parties couldn't donate more than 1000 dollars to candidates running for any race city council mayor or sheriff district attorney and then in January 2012 there was a federal judge who ruled that the city's law actually restricted free speech. They were too restrictive on the political parties. Interestingly this is one of the first cases that was thrown out under the Citizens United precedent that famous Supreme Court case. So the city and county got rid of those limits and when they tried to create new limits the political parties. You know there were hugely opposed to this in the Republican Party was so upset about it that after the county passed their new limits they actually tried to get rid of someone who they had supported for many years who voted in favor of that law. The Republican Supervisor Dianne Jacob who did win re-election. But you can see this has been an ongoing issue for a long time now child tracking down these numbers on party spending. It took a lot of work. Why is it so hard to figure out how political parties get involved in our elections. There's no good reason for it. I think everyone agrees there should be more transparency than there is right now. If I want to answer the question How are political parties spending their money. You think it would be pretty straightforward but it's not to do this project. I had to compile data from over 120 financial reports filed with the secretary of state and to my own database of 3000 transactions since 2010. And so that is something that everyone agrees shouldn't be the case. But unless the law changes and we increase transparency in this process it's probably not going to. Looking ahead what can we expect in terms of spending in the supervisor's race as we approach the November general election. So the answer to that is more money basically so the campaigns themselves and the political parties and the independent expenditure groups that are getting involved are all going to keep spending more and more money in this race independent expenditure groups have already spent an unprecedented one point two million dollars. So we know that we're going to see a lot more of that coming up. I have been speaking with our news source reporter Jill Castellano. Jill thank you. Thank you.

It’s not a normal year in San Diego politics.

The San Diego County Democratic Party spent $958,000 supporting Board of Supervisors candidate Nathan Fletcher leading up to the June primary.

That’s more money than the county Republican and Democratic parties have spent on any other candidate this decade, according to an inewsource analysis.

It’s also 37 times the maximum amount of money that political parties are allowed to give county supervisor candidates: $25,950.

So how did Fletcher get nearly $1 million in support from the local Democratic Party — and he’ll get more for his November runoff with Republican Bonnie Dumanis — when the contribution limit is so much smaller than that?

The Democrats used a part of California’s campaign finance law called “member communications.” Republicans use it all the time, too. It’s existed for decades and has allowed both parties to funnel hundreds of thousands of dollars into San Diego races despite efforts by local governments to curb party spending.

Rather than contributing directly to candidates’ campaigns, California’s political parties can spend unlimited amounts of money telling people who they should vote for, so long as they’re only communicating with members of their own party. They can even coordinate and strategize with the candidates on what exactly to do with the funds.

This type of spending is especially difficult to track. To gather data on member communications in San Diego County, inewsource compiled more than 3,400 transactions by hand that were listed on more than 120 financial reports the local parties have filed with the Secretary of State’s Office since 2011.

This election cycle, San Diego’s parties have spent about $1.3 million on member communications in all kinds of races, including races for the state Assembly, district attorney, San Diego City Council, Chula Vista mayor and boards of education.

But the race to replace Republican Supervisor Ron Roberts — who is termed out after more than two decades in office — has attracted the most cash from the political parties.

RELATED: Search Database Of How Much Money Poliltical Parties Have Spent On Local Candidates Since 2011

That’s in part because Fletcher is the best chance for Democrats to get a seat on the all-Republican Board of Supervisors. It also helps that Fletcher, a former assemblyman who left the Republican Party to be an independent before becoming a Democrat, is married to a prominent Democrat.

Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher has given the San Diego County Democratic Party $370,000 since the start of last year through her campaign committees, three times more than anyone else has contributed to either party this election cycle.

That’s not typical for Gonzalez Fletcher. In each of the previous two election cycles, she gave the party about $16,000.

Under state law, parties can accept as much money as they want from elected officials as long as they don’t explicitly say how the money should be spent.

What the assemblywoman is doing to help the Democratic Party and her husband is legal. But Bob Stern, co-author of California’s Political Reform Act in 1974, said what has happened in Fletcher’s race is noteworthy.

“Clearly they're taking advantage of all the loopholes they can,” Stern said.

What’s unusual, he said, is having “a wife that is also a legislator that is so involved in giving the money.”

Gonzalez Fletcher said there are no loopholes.

“I think when the law was written, it was clear that there could be money going into the party, and the party could use unlimited amounts of money to speak to their own members,” she said. “That’s the law.”

Democrats See ‘Historic Opportunity’

The Board of Supervisors is a panel of five Republicans that runs America’s fifth most populous county. Four of the supervisors have been serving since the 1990s.

During that time, the once mostly red county has transformed into a mostly blue one. This is especially true in the 4th Supervisorial District, which covers central San Diego. There are now two registered Democrats for every Republican in the district.

With term limits in place for the Board of Supervisors, the 2018 election marks the first time Roberts’ seat has been open in a generation. Democrats are fighting for a voice on the board, while Republicans don’t want to lose even one spot.

Five candidates — four Democrats and one Republican — vied in the June primary for Roberts’ seat. Fletcher finished first with 29.2 percent of the vote, and former District Attorney Dumanis came in second with 26.1 percent.

Jessica Hayes, chair of the county Democratic Party, defended the spending to win Roberts’ seat. In an email, she said:

“This election cycle is an historic opportunity for Democrats to pick up a seat on the County Board of Supervisors, an entity that impacts all citizens of San Diego County on a daily basis, from fair wages to transportation and housing, from healthcare to water and fire protection. … Our spending reflects the fact that this race is a high priority, and the results speak for themselves.”

Leading up to the primary, political action committees spent an unprecedented $1.2 million in the race. The five candidates spent another $1.4 million in campaign money.

But the political parties’ involvement has been less clear because of how difficult it is to follow their spending. An inewsource analysis found the Democratic Party spent $6 per registered Democrat in the district to support Fletcher. Almost half of the money paid for fliers mailed to Democrats, and the rest went mostly to online ads and phone calls.

Fletcher’s campaign was legally allowed to work with the Democratic Party on how it should spend the almost $1 million in member communications.

Fletcher said the party money helped combat negative ads paid for by the Republican-leaning Lincoln Club and San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce, which used PACs to spend at least $446,000 opposing him. Other groups spent $207,000 propping up another Democrat in the race, Lori Saldaña, who finished third in the primary.

“We were a little shocked that we came in first given the volume of spending against us,” Fletcher said, “and I think it prepares us well to run a very aggressive general election campaign.”

The Republican Party has so far spent $167,000 supporting Dumanis — six times the party contribution limit — and it was almost entirely through member communications. That’s $2 per registered Republican in the district.

Former San Diego County District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis talks with supporters at Golden Hall following the primary election on June 5, 2018
Megan Wood
Former San Diego County District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis talks with supporters at Golden Hall following the primary election on June 5, 2018

Dumanis said the Democrats spent more than the Republicans partly because of Gonzalez Fletcher’s involvement.

“It doesn't surprise me for Nathan, since his wife is chair of the (Assembly) Appropriations Committee and is doing the raising of the money for him really,” Dumanis said. “So she has unlimited money in her coffers as she runs for Assembly. She can take that money and then put it directly into the party.”

Gonzalez Fletcher has made nine donations to the Democratic Party since the start of last year. On May 23, the exact amount she donated to the party — $50,000 — was spent by the party on a member communication for online ads to support her husband.

Fletcher declined to talk about his wife’s contributions to the party, saying she’s a “strong, bold, dynamic woman who doesn’t need her husband to speak for her.”

Gonzalez Fletcher has been involved in San Diego politics since she ran in a special election for City Council in 2005 and lost by 724 votes to Republican Kevin Faulconer, who’s now the mayor. In her role as CEO of the San Diego-Imperial Counties Labor Council, she also helped promote the ballot measure that put term limits on the county supervisors.

Even before the county Democratic Party endorsed her husband last year, Gonzalez Fletcher said she planned to get involved in the supervisor race.

“You take a situation that I'm supportive of anyway and make it more personal, and I said, yeah, we're going to do what we can to ensure that we have a strong Democrat there,” she said.

Parties Get Around Spending Limits

San Diego County’s elected leaders have tried and failed to control political party spending for years.

In 2011, the Board of Supervisors capped the amount parties could donate to county candidates at $1,000, the same limit the city of San Diego had in place for City Council and mayoral races. Then, in January 2012, a federal judge ruled the city’s law restricted free speech. That prompted the supervisors to scrap the county’s contribution limit.

Throughout the next year, when there were no limits on party spending, the Republican Party spent more money on a single candidate than it has at any other time this decade. It was to fund Carl DeMaio’s bid for San Diego mayor.

The party contributed $404,000 to his campaign and spent another $480,000 through member communications on fliers, robocalls, door hangers, polling and more.

But after the city and county set new contribution limits, the parties continued to rely on member communications to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars in local races. State law prevents local governments from limiting member communications because they’re considered free speech.

San Diego’s new contribution limits went into effect three weeks before San Diego Mayor Bob Filner resigned amid sexual harassment allegations in 2013. Parties could now donate no more than $20,000 to a mayoral candidate and $10,000 to City Council candidates.

Filner was the city’s first Democratic mayor in 20 years, and Republicans were ready to take the seat back. The contribution limit didn’t stop them.

The party spent $633,000 supporting Faulconer in the special mayoral election, using about a third of it in the primary on phone calls and fliers and the rest in the general, largely on canvassers to knock on voters’ doors in the days before the election.

The Democratic Party spent $466,000 supporting Faulconer’s opponent, Councilman David Alvarez.

RELATED: Political Party Spending: How We Crunched The Numbers

Campaign finance experts have voiced concern over these unlimited spending practices. Stern said if voters “care about money in politics, if they believe that the money should be raised in smaller amounts, and should not be spent in unlimited amounts, then they (should) care” about member communications.

Tony Krvaric, chairman of the county Republican Party, defended member communications as a fair way to tell voters about candidates, especially in nonpartisan races such as supervisor when voters won’t see which candidates belong to which party on the ballot.

“If you belong to, you know, whatever, a chess club with 200 people, you guys can communicate amongst each other as much as you want,” Krvaric said. “Nobody would ever think to say no, you guys can only talk to your fellow members so often or so much.”

The county Republican Party has advocated for no limits on party spending of any kind, arguing that strong political parties are a better source of funding in local elections than special-interest groups that might use PACs to obscure their identities and mislead voters.

That position is so important to the Republican Party that after the county passed its limits in 2015, party officials tried to oust Republican Supervisor Dianne Jacob — who voted in favor of the limits — by funding potential challenger state Sen. Joel Anderson. He eventually dropped out of the race, and Jacob easily won re-election to a seventh and final term.

For now, Republicans and Democrats can agree on one thing: The real prize is still ahead of them. It’s the open 4th District seat on the county Board of Supervisors.

This month, the Democratic Party contributed $25,000 to Fletcher’s campaign for the fall.

“We wholly expect and anticipate that millions of dollars will be spent against us once more,” Fletcher said, “and we will be prepared to respond.”

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Democrats Spent 37 Times The Contribution Limit On Nathan Fletcher. And It’s Legal.
The San Diego County Democratic Party spent $958,000 supporting Board of Supervisors candidate Nathan Fletcher leading up to the June primary.

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