It was the biggest disaster of its kind in U.S. history: More than 100,000 metric tons of methane leaked out of the Aliso Canyon storage facility, displacing thousands of residents from the suburban L.A. neighborhood of Porter Ranch.
Now two candidates are facing off to represent this and other parts of the northwestern San Fernando Valley on the Los Angeles City Council. And money from the fossil fuel industry has become a prickly issue in the race, as tens of thousands of dollars flow to independent committees that the candidates themselves cannot legally control.
Two groups affiliated with the petroleum industry chipped in $20,000 in May for a political action committee that backed John Lee, a former City Hall aide vying for the council seat. Backers of Loraine Lundquist, a college educator and astrophysicist who has made climate change a central issue in her campaign, have made hay of that fact.
“This is a district that experienced a huge environmental catastrophe that threw people out of their homes for months. And that was caused by the fossil fuel industry,” said Councilman Mike Bonin, who has endorsed Lundquist. “If the fossil fuel industry is throwing down in that race, I think that’s a credit to, and a benefit for, Loraine Lundquist.”
That money came through a committee tied to the union that represents most Department of Water and Power workers, which is opposing a plan to phase out three plants powered by natural gas.
But Lundquist has benefited from an outside committee that received money from the parent company of Southern California Gas Co., which operates the Aliso Canyon storage facility that both she and Lee argue for shutting down.
In July, a committee tied to the Los Angeles County Democratic Party started bankrolling mailers and ads backing Lundquist, who would be the first Democrat to hold the council seat in decades. Although much of its money has come from progressive groups such as the Los Angeles League of Conservation Voters and a committee dedicated to electing scientists, the committee also took in $1,450 from Sempra Energy, which owns SoCalGas.
Lee and his supporters have seized on that spending to cast doubt on Lundquist’s pledge not to take campaign money from petroleum companies.
“She talks about fossil fuel money ... when companies like Sempra have donated to her super PACs,” Lee said at one forum.
Money out of candidates’ control
Devin Osiri, executive director of the county Democratic Party, said Sempra gave the money for tickets to attend an annual awards dinner. The money came to the Democratic Party committee in May, before Lundquist had defeated other Democratic candidates to get into the runoff or received the party endorsement.
Nonetheless, Osiri said the money was returned to “clear up any confusion.” Lundquist campaign consultant Jesse Switzer said she “has and will continue to be a fierce advocate for shutting the Aliso Canyon gas facility down.”
Neither Lee nor Lundquist can legally control spending by outside committees, which are not allowed to coordinate with candidates or their campaigns. The dueling attacks underscore how such “independent expenditures” can be both a blessing and a curse to local campaigns. Larry Levine, a political consultant who is not working for either candidate, said he hated “IE money.”
“A candidate has absolutely no control over it, but is answerable for it,” Levine said.
Donors can give only $800 per election to each L.A. council candidate, but can give as much money as they want to outside committees that support those candidates. That has made independent expenditure committees, which must operate independently from candidates and their campaigns, a muscular force in local elections.
Such independent committees can also lob political attacks that the candidates themselves would rather avoid. The Democratic Party committee backing Lundquist recently unveiled a digital ad denouncing Lee, a Republican, for a harassment claim that led to a $75,000 settlement -- an issue that Lundquist herself has not emphasized.
But outside spending by moneyed interests can also become a campaign liability. When Eric Garcetti ran for mayor six years ago, he turned spending by the union that represents workers at the Department of Water and Power against his opponent, calling into question whether she could be independent from the union.
Councilman David Ryu, who swore off campaign donations from real estate developers when he ran for office, nonetheless benefited from tens of thousands of dollars in independent spending by a developer, prompting his opponent to label his pledge a gimmick.
Unions, businesses and a New York investor
In May, Working Californians, the political action committee sponsored by the DWP employee union, spent more than $57,000 to fund mailers that billed Lee as a problem solver. As he faces an August runoff, it has started spending again, shelling out more than $35,000 more as of Friday.
Besides the oil and gas industry, the Working Californians committee has also gotten tens of thousands of dollars from a committee tied to a union representing plumbers and pipe fitters and toy maker MGA Entertainment, which got city approval for a Chatsworth campus with apartments and offices, among other donors.
Lee campaign senior strategist Pat Dennis said that although the campaign does not control outside spending, it was proud to have the support of unions representing “blue collar workers.”
In addition to Working Californians, taxi cab and billboard companies and a political action committee linked to the Los Angeles County Business Federation have done independent spending to support Lee. BizFed PAC chair Trini Jimenez called Lee “the clear choice to support economic growth and prosperity for all the residents of his district and the city.”
As of Friday, independent groups had shelled out more than $133,000 to support Lee in either the primary or runoff, according to reports filed with the Ethics Commission.
Lundquist has seen an outpouring of independent spending to support her or oppose Lee after she snagged a spot in the August runoff, totaling more than $195,000 as of Friday in both the primary and runoff elections. That boost could be especially important for Lundquist because her campaign fundraising has otherwise lagged behind that for Lee.
It includes spending by committees linked to the Los Angeles League of Conservation Voters and Food & Water Watch, which has advocated to shut down Aliso Canyon, as well SEIU Local 721, a union that represents L.A. city workers including tree trimmers and sanitation workers. Union president Bob Schoonover said its members identify with her “commitment to urgently address the affordable housing and homeless crisis.”
The bulk of the independent spending for Lundquist has come from two committees: the one sponsored by the Democratic Party, which accepted and later returned the Sempra donation, and the I Love L.A. committee funded heavily by New York hedge fund manager Aaron Sosnick, which had reported spending more than $96,000 as of Friday.
Lee has publicly criticized that spending for Lundquist, arguing that “outside interests who do not live in this district are propping her up to push their personal agenda.” Sosnick, who has funded causes including bicycle advocacy and the arts, said in an email that he was backing Lundquist “because she’s the candidate for a greener, safer, healthier, more livable L.A.”
Times staff writer David Zahniser contributed to this report.