Days before Angelenos head to the polls, big-money committees with wealthy backers are still pouring money into local races.
This week, a Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce-sponsored group spent $80,000 on radio ads praising City Councilman Gil Cedillo, who faces a sharp challenge from local bike activist Joe Bray-Ali to represent a district that includes Lincoln Heights, Chinatown and Westlake.
The Spanish-language ads, which will air through election day, focus on Cedillo's history of working on behalf of those in the country illegally, argue he has been a champion for his constituents and tout endorsements by Gov. Jerry Brown and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti.
Independent committees such as the chamber group are not allowed to coordinate with candidates or their campaigns, but they can be a powerful force in local elections because they are free from fundraising limits. Donors are currently limited to giving $800 to each City Council candidate per election cycle but can shell out unlimited funds for independent committees that support them.
Spending by such committees can become a liability, however, if their donors are controversial. The chamber committee is funded, in part, by Chevron Corp. — a fact seized on by critics of Cedillo, who served in the state Legislature for 14 years before winning his council seat four years ago.
"I am fed up with our local politicians being bought by corporate polluters that poison our kids," Bray-Ali said. "My opponent has a long record of support from Big Oil, which is why he can't be counted on to steward our environmental cleanups, prevent toxic polluters from operating near our schools or bring our city into a sustainable future."
Cedillo campaign consultant Derek Humphrey pointed out that under the law, their campaign cannot coordinate with committees such as the chamber group. He added that Cedillo had the backing of "a diverse coalition of residents, organizations and city leaders," including groups such as the Chamber of Commerce that were independently active in city elections.
Ruben Gonzalez, senior adviser to the Chamber of Commerce, said that "hundreds of companies, from mom-and-pop shops to large corporations, engage through [the committee] because they want elected officials, like Gil Cedillo, who work with job-creating businesses in partnership, and not demonize them as Mr. Ali does."
As of Friday afternoon, the Chamber of Commerce committee had also spent more than $35,000 to support Councilman Mitch O'Farrell and nearly $20,000 to back Monica Rodriguez, one of the candidates vying to represent a San Fernando Valley council district that includes Sunland, Tujunga and Sylmar.
Rodriguez has also faced criticism over $20,000 in oil industry donations to another independent committee supporting her candidacy. Eric Hacopian, a consultant to rival candidate Karo Torossian, argued that oil companies "clearly trust Monica Rodriguez to put their interests over those of district residents when it comes to opening up our open spaces to oil and gas drilling and in fighting to protect the health and safety of district residents."
Independent committees, several of them sponsored by labor unions, have spent more than $270,000 overall to support Rodriguez, according to Los Angeles City Ethics Commission records. When asked about the money from the oil industry, campaign consultant Josh Pulliam pointed to her endorsements from the Sierra Club and the Los Angeles League of Conservation Voters.
"It's ludicrous to say she's some kind of oil candidate," Pulliam said.
O'Farrell, who is running in an Echo Park-to-Hollywood district, publicly denounced the "oil money" from the chamber committee and stated he was an environmentalist who opposed the Dakota Access pipeline. "Unfortunately, no campaign has control over independent expenditures," O'Farrell said.
Corporations, labor unions and other moneyed interests have poured more than $1.2 million into such committees to back or oppose city candidates during the campaign, according to the Ethics Commission.
The majority of that money has gone to incumbents, who must get at least 50% of the vote Tuesday to avoid a runoff in May. For instance, an independent committee with funding from the developers of the Reef, a controversial development in South L.A., has spent more than $88,000 to support Councilman Curren Price and nearly $23,000 backing Councilman Paul Koretz.
But independent committees have also been formed to back candidates challenging the incumbents, including community organizer Jorge Nuño, a Price challenger whose sister runs a committee supporting his candidacy, and Doug Haines, a Hollywood neighborhood activist who is seeking to unseat Councilman Mitch O'Farrell.