Politics & Government


December 2, 2002

January 10, 2003

Winds of change in local election results

While Republicans in Washington, D.C. were celebrating historic victories in the midterm congressional election, Republicans in California were forced to contemplate the depth of the hole they have dug for themselves.

For the first time in recent history, Democrats will control all state constitutional offices, both houses of the state legislature, both U.S. Senate seats, and an overwhelming majority of California's congressional seats.

The Democrats' juggernaut stalled a bit in San Diego County, where Bill Simon out-polled Gray Davis by a margin of 11 points, and Republican Shirley Horton captured the Democrat-leaning 78th Assembly District.

But the dynamics that defined Election 2002 elsewhere in the state were also evident in San Diego.

As a result of the 2001 state re-districting, Sacramento politicians finally got their fondest wish -- the elimination of almost all competitive state legislative and congressional races.

Out of a total of 173 state legislative and congressional districts in California, there are now fewer than a dozen in which voters will have a meaningful choice.

Why did Sacramento Republicans accept the permanent minority status dictated by the Democrat's re-districting plan? Because they, like their Democratic counterparts, prefer "safe" districts to competitive ones in which they must spend millions of dollars campaigning against candidates from the other party.

But non-competitive districts have other consequences. Among other things, they discriminate against moderate candidates from both parties and benefit ideologues from the far left and far right.

Under California's "closed" primary system, a candidate who appeals to the partisan base in a safe district -- whether it be Republican or Democrat -- usually prevails over a candidate who appeals to middle-of-the-road voters, who make the difference in November elections, but are in short supply during the March primary. As a result, the legislature is becoming increasingly dominated by highly partisan Democrats and Republicans.

Another consequence of the absence of competitive legislative races is a major shift in expenditures by state special interests. In years past, the Democrat and Republican caucuses in Sacramento had to raise between $15 million to $20 million per election cycle to finance contested legislative races throughout the state. This money came from special interests like insurance companies, trial lawyers, utilities and, first and foremost, from organized labor.

In 2002, with many fewer competitive legislative races to finance, organized labor was able to reallocate millions of dollars from state legislative races to local city council and school board campaigns.

Organized labor pitched in at least $300,000 in support of 2nd District City Council candidate Michael Zucchet, much of it coming from Sacramento and Washington, D.C. labor unions that would previously have been focused on state legislative races (the exact amount of such expenditures for Zucchet is still unknown, since several large expenditures by unions have yet to be reported).

In the San Diego Unified School District, the California Teachers Association, along with the local teachers union, spent nearly $600,000 in support of their two candidates for school board.

The impact of these massive expenditures is significantly enhanced in jurisdictions where there are low individual contribution limits ($250 per person in the city of San Diego; $500 in the school district).

Candidates in such jurisdictions who lack support from organized labor are forced to raise campaign funds within the contribution limits, an expensive and time-consuming task that puts these candidates at a significant disadvantage to those who can rely on monetary and volunteer support from the unions.

However, provisions of Proposition 34, a campaign finance initiative approved by state voters in 2000, exempted from local regulation communication by political parties with registered members of their parties.

Taking advantage of this exemption, the San Diego County Republican Party spent more than $400,000 on various local races, including the 2nd Council District and the school board, and the local Democratic Party spent tens of thousands more (final reports have not yet been filed) in the 2nd Council District. Most of the money spent by the parties came in large chunks from individuals and interest groups.

What do these changes in the way campaigns are financed portend for future local elections?

Unless significant changes are made in local campaign laws, organized labor will continue to enjoy a significant advantage over individuals and other interest groups because they can make expenditures in unlimited amounts and pay for communication disseminated to all voters. Drawing on national and statewide treasuries, they have the ability to outspend any competing group.

Partisanship will likely increase as both major parties use the Proposition 34 exemption to help finance campaigns for their chosen candidates. Although a candidate's party affiliation has always been one factor in local races, formal endorsements and significant expenditures can give the parties considerable leverage in shaping local policy discussions.

The bottom line for local government will be the injection of outside political agendas into their decision-making process and a more partisan and polarized atmosphere in their chambers.

Shepard is CEO of Tom Shepard & Associates, a San Diego-based political consulting and public affairs firm. He can be contacted at tom.shepard@sddt.com.


December 2, 2002

January 10, 2003