Tight Fresno City Council campaign fundraising window opens Monday

The Fresno BeeFebruary 8, 2014 

Starting Monday, Fresno City Council hopefuls and incumbents can start raising money for their campaigns for seats in Fresno's City Hall.

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Starting Monday, Fresno City Council hopefuls and incumbents can start raising money for their campaigns. It's just 114 days before the June primary election, and that's the challenge facing candidates in an era when campaign dollars are critical to success.

Some in the political arena think that the city's ordinance limiting the fundraising period is unrealistic, both to gather cash and mount a credible political campaign. It's especially true, they say, for both non-incumbents and those without ready access to personal cash.

"It's a serious disadvantage for a challenger," said local political consultant Tim Orman, who is working for District 7 incumbent Clint Olivier. "The only challengers it's not a disadvantage for are the ones who can write their own check."

And it no doubt explains the spending binge that four of the six candidates for the District 1 seat on the City Council have been on for months.

Rebeca Rangel, for instance, has purchased voter rolls, paid to have a website designed, attended a conference and bought campaign fliers. Rama Kant Dawar has hired a campaign consultant, purchased business cards and campaign literature, and put up a website.

They've done it the only way they legally can -- with their own money.

Dawar has loaned his campaign $30,000. Rangel has loaned her campaign $5,000.

They're not the only ones. Cary Catalano loaned his campaign a little more than $24,000. Esmeralda Soria has loaned her campaign $4,500. Mark Castro loaned his $2,850.

But some elected officials, consultants and candidates believe it's not the fairest or best way to run an election campaign.

Fresno's District 1 won't have an incumbent running this year. Current member Blong Xiong is termed out. But three other districts up for election have incumbents: Oliver Baines in District 3, Sal Quintero in District 5, and Olivier in District 7 are all seeking second terms.

Orman said these council members "already know all the players." There's a good chance, he said, that their calls to potential donors will be answered or returned.

The same can't necessarily be said for challengers. That's why a short fundraising window can be hard.

"The smaller the (fundraising) window you allow, the more you create an incumbent protection program," said Dan Schnur, who is on leave as director of the University of Southern California's Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics while he makes an independent run for secretary of state.

This year, individuals contributing to Fresno City Council candidates are limited to $4,100, while campaign committees can give up to $8,200. If a candidate moves on to the November general election, the same individuals and committees can give up to that same amount again.

Current Fresno City Council Member Lee Brand and former member Andreas Borgeas, who is now a Fresno County supervisor, pushed the idea to a city charter review committee of expanding the fundraising window. It went nowhere.

"It dramatically favors the incumbent because they're already riding high with money raised in previous elections that they've held over, and with the high (name identification) and high profile that comes with incumbency -- while others pay ungodly sums to match that," Borgeas said.

Monday marks the first day that Fresno City Council candidates can file to run for office. That also is the day that fundraising can start under the city ordinance.

The change was made by city electors in 1993. It covers not only council candidates, but mayoral candidates as well.

It doesn't mean a hopeful can't speak to a service club or walk precincts or meet with a potential donor to tell them about their platform. But they can't even solicit a donation.

The prohibition is so strict that a candidate can't send out an invitation to a political fundraiser before the first day of the candidate filing period.

Brand said he and Borgeas proposed moving the start of the fundraising window back to the previous July 1.

As it is now, Brand said, the advantage for the incumbent -- or the wealthy -- is so obvious that he even blew the whistle on himself.

He plans to run for mayor in 2016, and already has more than $155,000 in his campaign coffers -- money he can tap for a run at the city's top political spot. And he'll make the run while still on the City Council.

Combined, Brand said it will be tough for any challenger to close the gap on his fundraising advantage.

"For me, it will put me in a pretty strong position," he said.

Adding to the struggle of the short time frame is the competition factor. Candidates for county, state and federal offices don't face the same limited window. They can raise money at any time.

This might not matter for donors that do business in Fresno and deal with its elected officials on a regular basis, but average citizens who donate might not have deep enough pockets to give to a City Council candidate after they already gave to a state or federal candidate.

By the time a City Council candidate gets to that potential donor, it's a vein that already might have been mined.

Still, not everybody sees the narrow fundraising window as a problem.

Jeff Cummins, a Fresno State political science professor, said Fresno's current mayor, Ashley Swearengin, is proof that a candidate can work within the current system.

Swearengin, he said, was a relative unknown in 2008 making her first run for public office, facing off against the more well-known Fresno Democrat Henry T. Perea.

She won.

"I don't think it's impossible for candidates to still do well," Cummins said. "There's the argument to be made that shortening the campaign season is a good thing."

Limiting the time for campaign contributions, he said, leads to less conflicts of interest where a city council member may be debating an issue that affects a donor.

And former Fresno City Council Member Garry Bredefeld said it never was an issue during his tenure.

"I frankly don't have any problem with only having a certain time that you can raise money," he said. "I just think everything should be reported, so you know where the money is coming from and know in a timely manner."

Schnur, a former Republican adviser who left the party in 2011, is running for secretary of state at the same time he is pushing for limits on political fundraising.

His idea is that both state legislators and statewide officeholders shouldn't be able to fundraise while the state Legislature is in session, or within 72 hours of its adjournment.

The idea, he said, is to eliminate the conflict of interest in which an elected official may be raising money while voting on bills that could benefit a donor.

Schnur's original idea was to include both incumbents and challengers in the fundraising ban. But after discussing it with others, he concluded that the ban should apply only to incumbents. It is an idea, he said, that could be considered in Fresno.

"The fact is it takes a lot more time for challengers to raise money than incumbents," he said. "As soon as the window opens, an incumbent can have all the money lined up in a week."


KEY DATES

Dec. 27: Candidates began gathering signatures for in-lieu petitions to avoid paying filing fees. Judicial candidates had until Wednesday; everyone else has until Feb. 20.

Monday: Candidate filing begins; runs through March 7 (extended to March 12 for races where the incumbent isn't running for re-election)

May 5: First day to vote by mail (also the day most sample ballots are mailed)

May 19: Last day to register to vote

May 27: Last day to request a vote-by-mail ballot by mail

June 3: Primary Election Day

Nov. 4: General Election Day

ELECTION OFFICES

Fresno County: 2221 Kern St., Fresno; details: fblinks.com/fcvote or (559) 600-VOTE (8683)

Tulare County: 5951 S. Mooney Blvd., Visalia; details: fblinks.com/tcvote or (559) 624-7300

Kings County: 1400 W. Lacey Blvd., Hanford; details: fblinks.com/kcvote or (559) 582-3211, ext. 4401

Madera County: 200 W. Fourth St., Madera; details: fblinks.com/madvote or (559) 675-7720

Merced County: 2222 M St., Merced; details: fblinks.com/mervote or (209) 385-7541

Mariposa County: 4982 10th St., Mariposa; details: fblinks.com/marvote or (209) 966-2007

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6320, jellis@fresnobee.com or @johnellis24 on Twitter.

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