Just days before Burbank voters went to the polls, Mike Gatto was the star attraction for a Napa Valley retreat at a five-star hotel where, for $5,000 each, guests could schmooze with the assemblyman and four of his legislative pals.
The event was organized by Dan Weitzman, a Sacramento political consultant who was on Gatto’s campaign payroll for $3,000 a month the last two years and helped raise a $1-million campaign war chest for the assemblyman.
This post has been corrected. See below for details.
The beneficiary of the money raised at the retreat was a political action committee called Prosperity led by Weitzman with Stacey Brenner, Gatto’s political director, serving as a fundraising consultant.
Gatto has no role in Prosperity, Weitzman says, but critics suspect he is the central figure in a tangled web of political relationships that have brought at least three PACs into Burbank city elections where most candidates normally raise only a few thousand dollars, and special interests from outside rarely get involved.
It is a mystery filled with contradictions, but important to explore with school board and City Council control on the line in Burbank and the likelihood Glendale will also become a super PAC battleground.
Gatto’s role is particularly curious since he has so publicly and passionately pushed for a constitutional amendment to overturn the Supreme Court ruling that opened the door to unlimited special interest financing of campaigns through super PACs.
“Voters are fed up with the notion that money is speech and that big money can drown out the speech of average citizens,” Gatto declared last spring in introducing a joint resolution backing a constitutional amendment.
He introduced it again on the first day of the new session in December as Joint Resolution No. 1 to emphasize its importance.
Yet, his own political consultant, Sacramento-based Mike Shimpock, is the spokesman for a political action committee set up to defeat Councilman Jess Talamantes, supposedly over a bailout of the DeBell Golf Club and cuts in reserve officers. Shimpock denies any connection to Gatto in the PAC’s campaign, noting that his relationship with the union pre-dates working for the assemblyman.
The United Food and Commercial Workers Union couldn’t care less about golf or city finances, but it does want to keep Walmart out of Burbank and put up $20,000 — a huge sum in a local election — solely to beat Talamantes, although fellow council members David Gordon and Dave Golonski also supported approving the permits.
One anti-Talamantes mailer with a picture of a golfer and paramedics rushing someone into an emergency room asked: “What’s more important … Golf or your life?”
“I don’t know why they have gone after me, but I can’t help wondering who is behind this. There has to be somebody,” Talamantes says, as he rattles off endorsements from various unions and prominent city and Democratic politicians, including Gatto. “We’ve never seen anything like this before in Burbank.”
Maybe it is just a coincidence that Prosperity had no hesitation accepting a $5,000 contribution from Walmart, or that it gave $250 to school board candidate David Dobson, who is heavily backed by another super PAC, or that Glendale Councilwoman Laura Friedman got a $1,000 contribution after Prosperity accepted $2,000 from the Glendale Firefighters for Better Government.
“I have no idea who they are. They have not communicated with me,” Friedman says. “I honestly don’t know. But it could be they saw Mike endorsed me and decided if he likes her, we’ll support her.”
The super PAC StudentsFirst — run by former Washington, D.C., Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, wife of Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson and a strong advocate for charter schools — got involved in the Burbank school board race in support of Charlene Tabet and Dobson, who had also received $250 from Prosperity.
StudentsFirst spent $6,675 on mailers for each of them with Tabet finishing second and Dobson fourth, qualifying them for the runoff against Steve Ferguson and incumbent Larry Applebaum, the candidates endorsed by the teachers union.
“This local campaigning is just out of control. It all just ties to Mike Gatto,” Ferguson said. “You really have to pay attention when people get this kind of money and wonder what the motives are unless it’s an exchange of political favors.”
As of Friday, Gatto had not responded to a request for comment.
Lori Adams, head of the Burbank Teachers Assn., is just as mystified, saying: “Charters aren’t an issue. Our schools are doing well, and none of the candidates have raised that issue. It’s hard to understand what’s going on.”
The bulk of Prosperity’s money comes from Indian casinos, and the biggest chunk of its largesse has gone to a federal super PAC called Citizens for Prosperity and Good Government.
It is presumably no coincidence that the super PAC backed Brad Sherman, Gatto’s political mentor, over Howard Berman in a costly and bitter congressional campaign. What is less clear is why it helped fund three Republican candidates, including freshman Oroville Republican Rep. Doug LaMalfa, who is pro-gun, anti-abortion and anti-gay marriage.
Yet another federal super PAC with ties to Gatto is Californians for Integrity in Government, which paid for a controversial anti-Berman mailer last fall.
It was targeted to Republican voters using mugs of Rep. Maxine Waters (black), Rep. Barney Frank (gay) and Sen. Barbara Boxer (Jewish) with the overline “If you love these politicians, then vote for Howard Berman.”
County Democratic Party leaders denounced it as “despicable” and “divisive;” Berman called it “offensive to women, minorities, the LGBT community and Valley voters.”
It was a trifecta of offenses that the Jewish Journal tied to Sherman’s former district director, none other than Mike Gatto, who worked for the congressman for five years.
Gatto’s response in the article in an email from a staffer: “Mr. Gatto has no official relationship with the entity…”
The operative word is “official” — a pretty fine-line distinction when so many threads of this web of intrigue and money tie together.
Friedman and L.A. City Council candidate Jose Sigala say they don’t know anything about the Prosperity super PAC or how they got contributions from it.
Weitzman insists Prosperity has nothing to do with Gatto or the anti-Talamantes campaign or StudentsFirst, that all they are trying to do is support good local Democratic candidates and help them move up the political ladder.
It’s a beautiful system — for special interests and professional politicians. Nobody knows nothin’. Nobody is responsible for nothin’. And the people get nothin’.
RON KAYE can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Share your thoughts and stories with him.
FOR THE RECORD: A column that ran on March 2 (“Ron Kaye: Wishing PACs would pack it in”) contained several errors. Stacey Brenner is no longer Mike Gatto’s political director; Mike Shimprock, a political consultant, is based in Pasadena, not Sacramento; and the Burbank Teachers Association endorsed Steve Ferguson and Armond Aghakhanian in the primary, not Larry Applebaum.