2

Banding together to buy back Congress

The $3 million – and possibly more – that Silicon Valley billionaire Larry Ellison has given to a super PAC backing Republican Marco Rubio’s presidential bid is a perfect example of why ordinary Americans need a way to balance out megadonors’ money, Rep. John Sarbanes said Friday.

John Sarbanes“It’s about who can get their phone calls answered, who can get the attention of candidates in the first place,” Sarbanes, D-Md., said during an interview in San Francisco. “Obviously the super PAC benefactors are in a position to do that with the presidential candidates.”

But now super PACs also are playing increasingly large roles in Senate and House races too, dragging America toward the day when every federal candidate will need to have “have a sugar daddy in the wings,” he said.

Unless regular voters band together to become sugar daddies themselves.

Sarbanes is the author of H.R. 20, the “Government By the People Act,” which would give every citizen taxpayer a $25 “My Voice Tax Credit” for House campaign contributions, and then augment those small contributions – and give candidates a bigger incentive to seek them – with a six-to-one match from a taxpayer-funded “Freedom From Influence Fund.” The bill also would let candidates to earn additional public matching funds within 60 days of the election so that citizen-funded candidates can combat Super PACs and outside groups.

“Even before Citizens United, we had a problem with direct campaign contributions to candidates having a lot of influence,” Sarbanes said, so pursuing a constitutional amendment to overturn that 2010 Supreme Court decision – a longshot at best – wouldn’t solve the problem. Instead, he said, it’s time to “build a different system that gives everyday people power.”

Some might complain that the answer to the corrosive influence of money in politics shouldn’t be putting more even money into politics. But Sarbanes said “the problem is not so much the amount of money – the problem is the source of the money,” coming from a tiny percentage of the mega-rich and amplifying only their interests.

Someone is going to own the levers of government – “either it’s going to be the big money crowd… or it’s going to be the public,” he said. “And if the public wants to own the government, there’s going to be a cost associated that, but it’s a pretty modest investment.”

This could help reverse the long downward trend in voter turnout, too, he said. “A lot of rational voters, either consciously or subconsciously, are saying to themselves, ‘Why bother voting if the guy I elect is going to work for someone else’” with deeper pockets, Sarbanes said. Fighting for access to the ballot box is important, but it’s useless if that ballot box is then hijacked on its way to Washington by moneyed special interests. “There’s a right to vote, and then there’s a right to have your vote mean something.”

Disclosure requirements, non-coordination rules and other campaign finance regulations “are about putting a referee on the field, to blow the whistle when someone is going out of bounds. It doesn’t solve the problems of most Americans still sitting up there in the bleachers,” he said. “The disaffected, disillusioned, frankly desperately cynical voters who’ve packed their things and fled the town square – this is a way to bring them back.”

Sarbanes’ bill has 155 co-sponsors, including the Bay Area’s entire House delegation but one Republican, Walter Jones, R-N.C. Sarbanes acknowledges he’s playing a long game and doesn’t expect the bill to pass any time soon, but he said he’s hitting themes that should appeal to voters across the political spectrum. After all, he said, voters on the far left and Tea Partiers alike talk about wanting to take their country back from the fat-cat special interests.

“I do see increasing use of the same lexicon, the same narrative I’m talking about here… and if they’re speaking this language, then we’re winning,” he said.

3

Rep. Eric Swalwell is having a good week

It’s a banner week for the East Bay’s Rep. Eric Swalwell.

On Tuesday, the life sciences and pharmaceutical industry held a fundraising reception for Swalwell, D-Dublin, at Washington, D.C.’s Sonoma Restaurant and Wine Bar; contributors gave $500, $1,000 or $2,000 each.

On Wednesday, it became apparent that he barely needed Tuesday’s fundraiser. The first-quarter campaign finance report he filed with the Federal Election Commission showed he raised $330,136 from Jan. 1 through March 30, bringing his cash on hand to $534,161.

Mind you, that’s what he has left after giving $50,000 to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and smaller contributions (usually $500 each) to a bunch of California Democrats in tougher districts, including Ami Bera, Julia Brownley, Pete Aguilar and Scott Peters – the kind of party tithing that helps members of Congress build clout for leadership positions.

And speaking of leadership positions, Swalwell – already a regional Democratic whip – on Thursday announced he’ll chair a new “Future Forum” of 14 young Democratic House members focused on issues and opportunities for millennials.

Eric SwalwellAt a kickoff announcement in Washington, Swalwell and Democratic Policy and Communications Committee Chairman Steve Israel, D-N.Y., said forum members are starting a national listening tour with stops in New York, Boston and the Bay Area, with other cities to follow in coming months.

In the Bay Area, those events will include a town hall on rising student debt and college affordability from 12:30 to 1:30 p.m. next Monday, April 20 in the event center at Chabot College, 25555 Hesperian Blvd. in Hayward. Swalwell and several other forum members also will hold a town hall on millennial entrepreneurship from 6 to 7 p.m. that night at the Impact Hub SF co-working space, 925 Mission St. in San Francisco.

“The issues of rising student loan debt, college affordability and declining millennial entrepreneurship do not just impact young Americans, they affect the health of our overall economy. Congress can’t afford to ignore these pressing challenges,” Swalwell said in a news release. “But we can’t just be talking about millennials; we need to be listening to millennials. To that end, we are crowdsourcing stories and ideas at events around the country and via social media and Medium to hear directly from our generation about how Congress can take action to better our future.”

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco, said in the release that the forum members “bring the energetic, innovative, forward-looking leadership needed to meet the 21st century challenges we face. This effort is about bringing young people to the table and harnessing their dynamism, optimism, and hope to create a future where equality of opportunity exists for all, not just the ultra-wealthy and well-connected.”

Other Future Forum include Aguilar, D-Redlands; Brendan Boyle, D-Pa.; Joaquin Castro, D-Texas; Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii; Ruben Gallego, D-Ariz.; Joe Kennedy, D-Mass.; Derek Kilmer, D-Wash.; Ted Lieu, D-Torrance; Grace Meng, D-N.Y.; Seth Moulton, D-Mass.; Patrick Murphy, D-Fla.; Jared Polis, D-Colo.; and Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz.

All this unfolds while there’s not yet anyone clearly preparing to challenge Swalwell in 2016.

At this time two years ago, then-state Senate Majority Leader Ellen Corbett already had announced she would take him on. But her third-place finish in last June’s top-two primary has called into question whether a challenge on Swalwell’s left flank can be effective in a district where 22.7 percent of voters are nonpartisan and 21.5 percent are Republicans.

Now, without a potential rival breathing down his neck, watch for him to spend more of his second term focused not only on serving constituents but also on shoring up his bona fides within the party to assure himself a more prominent future.

3

Citizens United anniversary brings protests

Activists are taking to the streets Wednesday in the Bay Area and across the nation to mark the fifth anniversary of the Citizens United U.S. Supreme Court ruling that has let an unprecedented flood of money wash across the face of American politics.

money in politicsIn Berkeley, the California Public Interest Research Group, local officials, students and residents gathered Wednesday morning on Cal’s Sproul Plaza. “Five years ago today, the Supreme Court went way off track, and gave mega-donors and corporate interests free rein to drown out the voices of the majority,” said Zach Weinstein of CALPIRG. “But we’re here today because the decision also sparked a movement of Americans working to take back our democracy, city-by-city and state-by-state.”

“We must stop the influx of big money in our democracy by passing an amendment to our constitution to stop corporations from being defined as people and money as speech; enacting disclosure laws, campaign finance contribution limits and publicly funded campaigns,” said Helen Grieco of Common Cause.

In San Francisco, activists are organizing a “Mourning in America” march starting at 3:30 p.m. from Market and Montgomery streets to the federal building at 450 Golden Gate Ave. for a 4:30 p.m. rally. The march, to “call for a reversal of corrupt campaign finance system that favors wealthy special interests over the public interest,” will be led by hip-hop artist Khafre Jay, effigies of the five Supreme Court Justices who were in the majority on Citizens United, a live band, and a coffin containing Uncle Sam; marchers are encouraged to wear black, and black armbands will be handed out.

Those scheduled to speak at the rally include former Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco; former Richmond Mayor Gayle McLaughlin; good-government expert and former Secretary of State candidate Derek Cressman; and others. Endorsers and organizers include the Money Out! People In! Coalition, 99Rise, CA Nurses Association, Common Cause, Courage Campaign, California Clean Money Campaign, Free Speech for People, Money Out Voters In (MOVI), MoveOn Councils, Move to Amend, Mount Diablo Peace and Justice Center, Public Citizen, Represent.us, San Francisco Labor Council AFL-CIO, Solar Justice, and the Sunflower Alliance.

99RiseIn Washington, D.C., seven 99Riseactivists disrupted Wednesday morning’s U.S. Supreme Court session. Each stood up and demanded that the court overturn Citizens United, before raising his or her index finger in the air – a gesture meant to represent the “one person, one vote” principle that they say the ruling undermined.

“We have seen the consequences of the free flow of private money rushing into our public political system,” activist Curt Ries said. “Nearly $4 billion was spent in the 2014 midterm elections, and almost all of it came from a handful of wealthy individuals and organizations. The kind of influence that money buys fundamentally corrupts our electoral process by giving undue representation to wealthy donors and corporations. That’s not a democracy, it’s a plutocracy.”

3

Will the rich buy California’s 2016 Senate race?

Campaign finance reform is needed to keep California’s 2016 U.S. Senate race from being bought by a small number of deep-pocketed donors, a consumer advocacy group said Wednesday.

The California Public Interest Research Group (CALPIRG) is pushing for a federal program that would match small contributions with limited public funds, so that grassroots candidates relying on small donors can compete with big-money candidates.

“California is no exception to the rule of big donor domination of politics,” CALPIRG campaign organizer Zach Weinstein said in a news release. “Any candidate who wants to run a viable campaign for Senate in 2016 will need to raise millions and millions of dollars to do so, and our current system makes that level of fundraising nearly impossible if you rely on small donors. Unless you’re connected to a network of big donors, you’re out of the running before you even start. The reforms we’re proposing could fundamentally change that system.”

U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., announced last week that she won’t seek a fifth six-year term in 2016. California Attorney General Kamala Harris declared her candidacy Tuesday, and although Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom has opted out, several other well-known names are considering whether to run.

Candidates in California’s last four Senate elections raised an average of $8.76 million, according to a memo issued Wednesday by CALPIRG; the highest amount, $23.17 million, was raised by Boxer for her 2010 re-election battle against Republican Carly Fiorina, who raised $11.63 million.

Current rules say individual donors can give up to $2,600 to a candidate for a primary election and another $2,600 for the general election for a total of $5,200 per campaign cycle; the Federal Election Commission will to revise this limit upward in the next few weeks after receiving new Consumer Price Index figures from the Labor Department.

But based on the current limit, a Senate candidate would have to raise more than $13,000 from individuals every day from now until Election Day in order to hit the average $8.76 million mark, CALPIRG notes. For a candidate relying on donors who “max out,” that’s five donors per day; for a candidate relying on small donors giving an average of $150, that’s 88 donors per day.

“When campaigns are paid for by big donors, those are the voices candidates hear the loudest,” Weinstein said. “In a democracy based on the principle of one person, one vote, small donors should be at the center of campaign finance – not an afterthought.”

1

Your International Human Rights Day review

Hey, it’s International Human Rights Day!

The date was set by the United Nations in 1950 “to bring to the attention ‘of the peoples of the world’ the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as the common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations.”

Nice! Let’s take a celebratory scan of some of today’s top stories!

“All senior U.S. officials and CIA agents who authorized and carried out torture like waterboarding as part of former President George W. Bush’s national security policy must be prosecuted, top U.N. human rights officials said Wednesday,” the Associated Press reports.

Ah. Well, at least we can be sure ordinary people’s voices are heard by lawmakers come election time.

“The $1.1 trillion spending agreement reached by House and Senate negotiators on Tuesday night would vastly expand the amount of money that donors can give political parties, bolstering party leaders’ ability to tap into the wallets of their largest contributors and reclaiming some clout from the outside groups that can accept unlimited dollars,” the New York Times reports.

OK, maybe we should look a little closer to home.

“For the third time in four nights, mayhem defined a protest march from Berkeley to Oakland, as demonstrators took over a freeway, looted businesses and threw objects at police, authorities said,” our own Bay Area News Group reports. “The demonstrations were part of an ongoing national movement against police violence, spurred by grand jury decisions not to indict police officers in Missouri and New York after the deaths of two unarmed black men.”

Yeeeesh. Well, at least there’s some progress elsewhere on protecting that most basic of human rights – life itself.

“The Ebola virus that has killed thousands in West Africa is still ‘running ahead’ of efforts to contain it, the head of the World Health Organization has said,” the BBC reports.

I give up.

I surrender

4

CA17: Honda spends big while Khanna runs dry

That dull thud you heard echoing across the 17th Congressional District recently was the sound of Rep. Mike Honda’s campaign dropping a massive $651,000 in October’s first half, according to a report filed Thursday with the Federal Election Commission.

Ro Khanna, Honda’s Democratic challenger, spent only about $168,000 during the same time, his report shows – and his campaign is now on the financial ropes.

Recent polls have shown a close race between the seven-term incumbent Honda, D-San Jose, and Khanna, and each have tried to maximize their impact since vote-by-mail ballots went out Oct. 6.

Honda’s report shows his campaign – which started the month with about $1 million in the bank – raised another $106,000 from Oct. 1 to Oct. 15, leaving him about $420,000 cash on hand but just short of $10,000 in debt at the close of that period.

The lion’s share of the spending went to the Washington, D.C. media and strategic communications firm of Adelstein Liston: $370,960 for a digital media buy and another $66,926 for “media services.” Next came the San Francisco-based Terris, Barnes & Walters campaign firm: $107,348 for direct mail, and $25,000 for campaign consulting.

Khanna – who started this race with far more money but spent most of it before June’s primary, in which he finished 20 points behind Honda – had about $218,000 cash on hand at the start of this month but about $141,000 in debt.

His new report shows he raised about $97,000 but spent about $168,000 from Oct. 1 to Oct. 15, leaving him with $148,000 cash on hand but $141,000 in debt – so, about $7,000 in unencumbered money.

Most of Khanna’s October spending – almost $111,000 – went to Chicago-based AKPD Message & Media (run by Obama campaign paid-media mogul Larry Grisolano) for direct mail.

I don’t yet see a pre-general report for Californians for Innovation, the independent super PAC formed this summer to support Khanna’s campaign and bankrolled in large part ($250,000 that we know so far) by Texas energy hedge fund billionaire John Arnold. When I do, I’ll update this post accordingly.

UPDATE @ 10:20 A.M. FRIDAY: (Sorry this is late, but I made an executive decision to take last night off.) Californians for Innovation’s report shows it raised $90,000 and spent $233,000 in the first half of October, leaving it with about $175,000 cash on hand and $30,000 in debt as of Oct. 15. Other FEC filings show it has spent about $58,000 more since mid-month.

Its contributors in the month’s first half were:

  • Arthur Patterson of Accel Partners (Palo Alto) – $10,000
  • Venkatesh Harinarayan of Cambrian Ventures (Mountain View) – $25,000
  • Anand Rajaraman of Cambiran Ventures (Mountain View) – $25,000
  • Rajeev Madhavan of Magma Design Automation (San Jose) – $5,000
  • OO Investment LLC (San Francisco) – $25,000
  • I initially can’t find much about OO Investment, but I’ll pursue it.

    Most of the spending – about $214,000 – went to Mailrite Print & Mail Inc. of Sacramento for direct mail. The $30,000 debt is owed to veteran Democratic political consultant Roger Salazar of Sacramento, for campaign consulting services.