Valley political hopefuls know money equals success at ballot box

The Fresno BeeMarch 28, 2014 

With money driving elections, campaign reporting deadlines have become crucial milestones in getting elected. Candidates running in the June primary election passed one of those milestones last week, and now they are judging their progress by how they compare with their opponents.

Take the nasty battle for Fresno County district attorney. Incumbent Elizabeth Egan raised $60,000 during the first two and a half months of 2014 and has more than $300,000 stashed away for her coming election showdown with challenger Lisa Sondergaard Smittcamp. During the same period, Smittcamp raised more than $205,000 and has around $260,000 in her campaign account.

Right now, the challenger is looking strong. But will it be enough to overtake Egan, who has the advantages of incumbency?

Last week's release of candidate fundraising reports cover Jan. 1 to March 17. The reports reveal the fund-raising strengths of the candidates, and whether they will have the resources to expend on expensive media efforts as the primary draws closer.

"This reporting period is critical because this is when you want to raise your money," said local political consultant Mark Scozzari. "The next two to three months is when you want to spend your money."

Every politician -- incumbent or hopeful -- knows that it costs money to run a campaign, right down to having volunteers knock on doors on a Saturday morning. Volunteers have to be fed and the literature they hand out at the door must be printed.

Having more money early gives a candidate flexibility in the campaign, said former Fresno State political science professor David Schecter, who worked on Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin's 2008 and 2012 campaigns.

"It gives you options that you need for the next 60 days that you may not have otherwise," said Schecter, who is now associate vice president for faculty affairs at California State University, Bakersfield.

Campaigns build a strategy based on a targeted budget. In local campaigns, direct mail is a must. But how often? In a countywide race such as district attorney, the cost of a single direct mailing could run between $25,000 and $30,000, Schecter said. For a Fresno City Council district, it could run from $10,000 to $15,000.

What about radio advertisements? Or television commercials? Most consultants are skeptical of their impact in local races, but what if the opposition takes that step? A campaign needs the cash to be able to react to the twists and turns of a campaign, Schecter said.

Looking at the latest reports, it is clear in several important races that some candidates are in better financial shape than others to get their message to the voters as the campaign season moves toward the June 3 primary.

In the battle to replace retiring Supervisor Judy Case McNairy in District 4, for instance, Riverdale farmer Ernest "Buddy" Mendes' fundraising dwarfed the other four candidates seeking the seat.

Mendes, drawing most of his support from the farm community, has raised more than $180,000 in the campaign and has almost $120,000 in his account as of March 17. The next closest is former Reedley City Council member Steve Rapada, who has raised around $35,000 and has around $17,000 cash on hand.

It doesn't mean Mendes will win on June 3, political experts said, but it does mean his campaign will have more financial tools at its disposal than the other hopefuls.

In the Egan-Smittcamp showdown, there are only two candidates, and both have the financial muscle to mount credible campaigns, which is why the race is expected to be so pitched and competitive.

But for a race that must be mounted countywide -- and will be decided on June 3 -- even their eye-popping totals to date aren't enough, Schecter said.

"They don't have enough money yet, that's the bottom line for me," he said.

Not even close, in fact. Though the totals are "really competitive money right now," Schecter said, "each of these candidates is going to need a million each, because that's what it's going to take."

If either side chooses television commercials, the likely cost for production and a weeklong run during the top-rated ABC30 (KFSN, Channel 30.1) newscast would be between $75,000 and $100,000, Schecter said. Other stations or times could reduce that cost.

Even Fresno City Council races can be pricey.

A good target -- though it is rarely attained -- is $150,000, experts said. A bigger dollar amount is even more important in the District 1 Fresno City Council race to replace termed out member Blong Xiong because each of the seven hopefuls has the added challenge of building name identification.

Cary Catalano, Rama Kant Dawar and Esmeralda Soria scooped up enough campaign contributions to put together a campaign website, hire a consultant, buy cards to hang on doorknobs and other campaign necessities.

Dawar has more than $50,000 in his campaign account, including a $30,000 loan to himself. Catalano has more than $31,000 in the bank, including more than $24,000 in loans. Soria has almost $47,000 -- including a $4,800 loan -- but also has around $20,000 in unpaid bills. Each of the three has already spent well above $10,000 on campaign expenses.

The remaining four hopefuls -- Rebeca Rangel, Lawrence Cano, Mark Castro and Jackson Shepherd -- lag in the money contest.

Even a bare-bones campaign should send three to four direct mailings to voters who regularly cast ballots. The mailings, experts said, should be targeted and highlight local issues such as public safety.

Schecter also said a poll can prove invaluable.

This is especially important in the District 1 council race because only the top two finishers in June will move on to the general election -- unless one of the seven can win more than 50% of the vote June, widely considered unlikely.

It all adds up financially.

There's also a fundraising caveat for several candidates, the most obvious being both Egan and Smittcamp.

Egan's husband loaned her campaign $100,000, and Smittcamp's husband loaned her race $50,000.

Candidates often try to pump up their campaign accounts with loans to themselves, when in fact they don't intend on spending that money.

Hopefuls know the political cognescenti look at campaign war chests to make judgments on a campaign's viability. The one with the most cash is often dubbed the front runner.

In this case, both Egan and Smittcamp campaigns say they'll spend as much money as necessary to win the campaign -- including the loans.

They weren't the only candidates to loan their campaigns money.

Kerman Mayor Gary Yep said it was an easy decision to put $100,000 from his grocery business into his District 1 Fresno County supervisor campaign.

He had entered the race late, and so his fundraising lagged. He said the money showed he was committed to running. The cash infusion, he also felt, gave him some momentum.

Yep knew, for instance, that Kerman dairyman Brian Pacheco had raised more than $265,000 and had more than $220,000 in his campaign account through the end of last year. That amount led many people to call Pacheco the frontrunner in the battle to replace Phil Larson, who like Case McNairy is retiring.

Pacheco added nearly $70,000 more this year, and had more than $235,000 in his account as of March 17.

Termed out Fresno City Council Member Blong Xiong, in the meantime, raised around $50,000 and has more than $28,000 cash-on-hand. But recently, he also earned the endorsement of the Service Employees International Union, and there is a broad assumption the SEIU will give big money to Xiong.

Mendota pastor John C. Flores, by comparison, had only around $1,300 in cash on hand and most of his money came from a loan he gave himself, and teacher/construction carpenter Frank Maldonado didn't report raising any money.

Yep's $100,000, along with the nearly $50,000 he raised from contributors -- minus expenses -- gave him more than $125,000 in his campaign coffers as of March 17.

And, he feels, the aura of viability, as well as real money to mount a credible campaign.

There's even candidates at this stage who won't have a race that counts until November but who are raising money nonetheless -- and even competing on the campaign trail.

One example is the 14th District state Senate race between incumbent Hanford Republican Andy Vidak and his challenger, Fresno Democrat Luis Chavez.

They will face each other in June, but because they are the only people in the race, the primary will be a sort of practice run. They'll face each other for real in November.

Still, Vidak raised $84,000 and has around $200,000 in his campaign account, and Chavez raised $240,000 -- mostly from a $200,000 donation from the state Democratic Party -- and has about that same amount in his campaign account (plus $61,000 in campaign debt).

Both candidates also met at a campaign forum this week in Bakersfield.

The wild cards in the political money game are those unchallenged candidates or ones in office who are not up for re-election. They still raise money, and the fruits of their labor are often candidates seeking office this year.

Assembly Member Henry T. Perea, for instance, in unchallenged. He contributed to multiple political candidates, including $4,100 to Soria's city council campaign.

Fresno City Council Member Sal Quintero, also unchallenged, gave $4,100 each to Rapada's supervisor campaign and to Luis Chavez's state Senate challenge of incumbent Andy Vidak. Chavez is Quintero's chief of staff.

And Swearengin, who is running for state controller, contributed $4,100 to Catalano's city council campaign from her mayoral account. She's in the middle of her second mayoral term.

But raising money is only half the battle, consultants and political experts say. How a campaign spends what it has is equally important.

"I've seen campaigns over the years that were funded 50% less than another, yet the (better-funded campaign) lost the election," said Scozzari, the local political consultant. "If you're just spending money and not necessarily spending it wisely, you could be a number one fundraiser, but be a number two candidate."

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

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