Unlimited outside spending in the campaigns for seven Los Angeles City Council seats has topped $1.2 million, with the vast majority of the money going to help incumbents at City Hall.
The spending has only added to the lopsided nature of the contests in Tuesday's election. On the Eastside, total campaign donations to Councilman Jose Huizar — both direct contributions and independent expenditures — exceed $1.3 million. That amounts to a more than 6 to 1 financial advantage for Huizar over his best-known challenger, former County Supervisor Gloria Molina.
Council President Herb Wesson holds a similar fundraising lead over his leading opponent, attorney Grace Yoo, in a Crenshaw-to-Koreatown district. In the San Fernando Valley, Councilwoman Nury Martinez has a sevenfold money-raising advantage over opponent, former Assemblywoman Cindy Montañez, fueled in large part by more than $230,000 in independent expenditures.
Thirty years ago, voters backed limits on the size of contributions that Los Angeles city candidates could collect. But those maximums, currently capped at $700 per donor, are being undercut as so-called independent expenditure groups pour tens of thousands of dollars into advertising and other efforts to boost their chosen candidates.
Independent expenditures are permitted as long as donors — labor unions, business groups, super PACs and others — do not coordinate their spending with their candidates. Those unlimited contributions have a distorting effect on elections, weakening contribution rules and making it more difficult for the public to track the money, said Bob Stern, who helped write the ballot language that created the state's Fair Political Practices Commission.
The unlimited contributions "allow special interests to spend lots of money on candidates who are then grateful for the money spent on them," Stern said. "No. 2, they hurt candidates who don't cater to big interests. And three, it's money that's not controlled by the candidates, so it can send messages the candidates might not approve of."
The spending has reached the point where two City Hall interests — United Firefighters of Los Angeles City, Local 112 and billboard company Lamar — have spent a combined $7,300 to support the reelection of Councilman Mitchell Englander, who represents the northwest San Fernando Valley. Englander has no opponent on the ballot.
Jimmy Blackman, the union's spokesman, said the group wanted to make sure voters were aware of Englander's support for firefighters. "Budget cuts [during the recession] took a tremendous toll on our Fire Department and we need leaders like Mitch Englander to continue the fight to rebuild our department," he said.
Independent expenditures were a major issue in the 2013 mayoral campaign, when then-candidate Wendy Greuel faced criticism for benefiting from more than $3 million in support from a political action committee affiliated with the Department of Water and Power's major employee union.
This time around, the biggest beneficiary of independent expenditure donations has been Huizar, whose backers have spent more than $500,000 on his behalf. Those donations are aimed at helping him garner the more than 50% majority needed to avoid a May 19 runoff.
Lamar Advertising Co., which has hundreds of signs with permitting issues still pending, spent $26,500 to put up scores of pro-Huizar billboards throughout the district. The firefighters' union, whose contract expires next year, has spent more than $35,000 on Huizar's reelection bid. And the Police Protective League, currently in salary negotiations with the city, has put in more than $51,000, according to contribution records.
Huizar, seeking a third term in a Boyle Heights-to-Eagle Rock district, said he has no control over those independent donations and dismissed the idea that the money would influence any votes. "To me, what happens in the campaign is separate and independent of my decisions as a council member," he said.
Molina, one of Huizar's opponents, said she was not persuaded by that argument. Independent expenditure donors, she said, "are interested in protecting somebody that's going to be their boy, their 'yes' vote on everything they want."
Less than one-third of the independent expenditures made during this year's campaigns went to support candidates not already on the council, according to Ethics Commission figures. Two of those candidates — nonprofit executive Marqueece Harris-Dawson and Democratic Party activist Bobbie Jean Anderson — are running to replace Councilman Bernard C. Parks in a South Los Angeles district.
Three other beneficiaries of independent expenditure contributions are seeking to replace Councilman Tom LaBonge in a Silver Lake-to-Sherman Oaks district: community college trustee Steve Veres, development director David Ryu and former Assemblyman Wally Knox.
By Thursday, the Police Protective League, which represents rank-and-file officers, had poured more than $72,000 into the effort to elect Knox, one of the race's more labor-friendly candidates. Knox said he received the support because of his work in Sacramento and because he shares the league's views on such issues as Gov. Jerry Brown's early inmate release program.
"Last year we had a 12% increase in violent crime. They're worried about that and I'm worried about that, so we have a very similar perspective," he said.
Among the biggest independent expenditure groups this year was the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, which reported more than $350,000 in spending on behalf of Huizar, Martinez and Harris-Dawson. That money went into mailers, precinct walkers and polling, among other things.
Martinez and Huizar sided with the federation last year in its drive to hike the minimum wage of workers at large Los Angeles hotels. In the coming months, the labor group is expected to push hard for passage of a minimum wage increase that would be citywide.
As of Thursday, the federation had put nearly $140,000 into efforts to elect Harris-Dawson, who is seeking to replace Parks. County Commissioner Robert Cole Jr., one of his rivals, said the money made him question whether Harris-Dawson will be "an independent thinker."
"Candidates should have the ability to stand on their own two feet, not have special interests try to control the race," he said.
Steve Barkan, Harris-Dawson's campaign consultant, said his client is "proud" to have the support from the federation, which represents workers including grocery clerks, construction workers and probation officers.
"The L.A. County Fed represents hundreds of thousands of working folks from diverse professions, so I wouldn't call them a special interest in the same way that he's inferring," Barkan said.
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Times staff writer Emily Alpert Reyes contributed to this report.