Local Election

Votes don't come cheap in candidates' quests for elected offices in Fresno, Valley

The three candidates for District 7, from left, Nelson Esparza, Brian Whelan and Veva Islas, were far and away the biggest spenders in campaign spending among 13 candidates running for Fresno City Council in the June 5 primary.  The trio collectively spent nearly a quarter million dollars on their campaigns.
The three candidates for District 7, from left, Nelson Esparza, Brian Whelan and Veva Islas, were far and away the biggest spenders in campaign spending among 13 candidates running for Fresno City Council in the June 5 primary. The trio collectively spent nearly a quarter million dollars on their campaigns. Fresno Bee

It's no secret that political campaigns can be an expensive business. It takes money to fuel a serious campaign – money for filing fees, printing signs and flyers, postage, newspaper ad space, radio or television airtime, campaign consultants, and so on and so forth.

The payoff comes after the votes are counted. But when turnout is meager – as it was for Tuesday's primary election for a raft of local and state offices – just how cost-effective can a sophisticated campaign be?

Or, put another way: With all of the spending that happens, how much did each vote "cost" a campaign or candidate?

For the three Fresno City Council district seats that were on Tuesday's ballot, a Fresno Bee analysis of candidates' campaign finance disclosure forms through May 19 reveals a wide range of spending and resulting "cost-per-vote" figures. On the low end, one campaign effectively spent less than $15 for each vote received on Election Day. At the other extreme, one losing candidate's campaign spent what amounted to more than $84 for each of her votes.

Even these figures will be subject to change, however. Fresno County Clerk Brandi Orth estimated that her office had about 14,000 vote-by-mail ballots still to count as of Friday afternoon, as well as about 7,300 provisional ballots and an untold number more mailed ballots to be received by Friday. Additionally, campaigns won't have to file their next financial disclosures of detailed spending – including last-minute flurries of mailers and advertising – until the end of July.

Collectively, the 13 candidates who filed spending reports through May 19 spent a total of about $451,700 on their campaigns. The biggest spenders were in District 7, where three candidates sought to replace termed-out incumbent Clint Olivier to represent the central Fresno area.

Council District 7

Attorney Brian Whelan was the top spender, shelling out more than $89,000, followed by Fresno County Board of Education member Nelson Esparza at about $82,300. Veva Islas, founder and director of the health advocacy organization Cultiva La Salud, spent a little over $77,000 in her campaign.

Voter turnout in District 7 was, as of Friday, a meager 16.2 percent. Of about 25,900 registered voters, fewer than 4,200 managed to either vote at a polling place on Election Day or get their vote-by-mail ballots back to the county elections office in time to be counted by Friday.

The updated vote tallies indicate that Whelan and Esparza, the two top vote-getters, will confront each other again in a runoff election in November. Whelan received 1,548 votes, while Esparza was only 48 votes behind at 1,500. Islas, with 917 votes, will be left behind.

Those figures work out more than $57 per vote cast for Whelan, about $55 for each vote for Esparza, and $84 per vote cast for Islas.

"I think it's an expense we can't afford not to pay," Islas said after the election. "One reason we don't have adequate representation is the cost of campaigning. A lot of people don't have the type of wealthy connections that some people do. That's part of the challenge of our system, the influence of money."

"When you factor in everything that needs to happen in order to run for office, you start to understand where all the costs are associated," she added. "I'd love to do it without asking any supporter for money. Residents of District 7 are some of the most impoverished in the city (and) they're really counting on a like-minded, progressive person who can address their challenges."

Islas loaned her own campaign more than $7,400, and raised almost $77,000 more in contributions from donors in and outside of Fresno. "One advantage I had is that I am an executive director, I make a decent salary, and I have regional contacts that became supporters of my campaign," she said. ""We had mostly small donors. We had no union support, no developer support and no Democratic Party endorsement."

"I have no regrets. I feel like we ran a clean, decent campaign focused on voter engagement and community issues," Islas said. "I'm disappointed, but not discouraged."

Whelan jump-started his campaign with about $16,200 in loans plus provided about $600 worth of event insurance, Facebook ads and supplies for campaign precinct walkers out of his own pocket, according to his financial disclosure reports. He raised more than $200,000 in contributions since the beginning of the year, and reported a cash balance of more than $134,000 to carry into the November runoff election.

Esparza's campaign got its initial funding from a transfer of nearly $5,000 from his 2016 campaign committee for the Fresno County Board of Education election and a $2,000 loan that he made to his council committee, according to his campaign disclosure forms. Since the beginning of 2018, his campaign raised about $102,000 in contributions, and as of May 19 reported an ending cash balance of almost $45,000.

District 5

In southeast Fresno's District 5, incumbent Luis Chavez outspent his nearest opponent, Paula Yang, by better than a two-to-one margin. The Chavez campaign shelled out almost $60,000, while Yang, a news anchor on a Hmong TV channel, spent just over $29,000 on her campaign.

But despite that spending disparity, Yang was just 234 votes behind Chavez as of Friday, although there are ballots yet to be counted. Chavez had 2,069 votes, compared to Yang's 1,835 votes. And those figures work out to just under $29 per vote for Chavez and less than $16 per vote for Yang.

Chavez began the campaign with about $31,300 left over from his November 2016 special election race, and raised $86,000 since the start of this year. As of mid-May Chavez had about $70,000 left to carry into the November runoff against Yang.

Yang reported a $4,000 loan to her campaign and raised about $19,000 more in contributions from donors. Her campaign committee was carrying over about $1,100 in cash but also reported about $5,500 in unpaid bills.

Jose Barraza, who ran against Chavez in the 2016 special election, ran third in both spending and vote-getting. The $18,117 he spent garnered him 876 votes, translating to a little more than $20 for each vote he received.

The state's Fair Political Practices Commission reported that a fourth District 5 candidate, Paul Condon, failed to file two pre-election campaign finance disclosures and was one of only three candidates statewide who didn't file the reports. Condon received 228 votes on Election Day.

Turnout in District 5 was calculated at just over 17.8 percent, with ballots cast by about 5,300 of the district's 29,656 registered voters.

District 3

The most crowded field of candidates for City Council was in District 3, covering southwest Fresno. It was apparently also the most frugal group of candidates. Collectively, the seven people on the ballot hoping to replace termed-out incumbent Oliver Baines spent less than $100,000 on their campaigns.

Miguel Arias, a spokesman for the Fresno Unified School District who is completing a four-year term on the State Center Community College District board, was the leading spender and leading vote-getter in Tuesday's primary. His campaign's financial statement reported a little over $28,000 in expenditures, yielding 1,184 votes – or about $24 for each vote he received.

Updated vote totals on Friday afternoon showed a tight race for the second spot in a November runoff among three candidates: businessman Tate Hill, educator Daren Miller and businessman and former councilman Craig Scharton.

Hill garnered 608 votes with his $11,700 in spending, while Miller's campaign spent about $24,300 and received 596 votes. Scharton, who served on the City Council from 1987 to 1991, spent almost $11,800 and pulled in 576 votes.

Election Day turnout in District 3 was only 15.7 percent; out of the district's 27,457 registered voters, just over 4,300 people voted.

Other notable races

Neighboring counties served up some interesting and heated races, but none rivaling the bloated cost-per-vote figures of Fresno's District 7 race.

In Madera County, District Attorney David Linn spent the least on his campaign compared to his two challengers. But in the game of electoral calculus, his vote totals meant that he spent the most money per vote received. Linn's campaign reported expenditures of about $46,300, and he received 4,486 votes – translating to about $10.32 per vote.

By contrast, challenger Sally Moreno not only spent the most money in the primary campaign – a little over $88,000 – but also got the greatest number of votes at 9,186. That's about $9.59 per vote. And Paul Hornick, the candidate who will face Moreno in a November runoff, garnered 6,714 votes after his campaign spent about $49,000 – or about $7.27 per vote.

In eastern Madera County, incumbent District 5 Supervisor Tom Wheeler and challenger Marc Sobel are headed to a November runoff. Wheeler's campaign reported expenditures of just over $73,000; that spending yielded him 4,176 votes, or about $17.50 per vote.

Sobel received 3,755 votes after a campaign that reported spending about $71,600, or a little over $19 per vote.

While there are likely more votes yet to be counted, the 26th Assembly District was a hotly contested race in which the Republican incumbent, Assemblyman Devon Mathis, R-Visalia, was challenged by a pair of fellow Republicans as well as a Democrat. The district includes some or all of three counties: Tulare, Kern and Inyo.

Visalia Mayor Warren Gubler had the backing of the local Republican establishment, and his campaign was far and away the biggest spender in the primary. Despite that, however, Friday's updated vote tally showed him in third place, in danger of failing to qualify for the November general election. Gubler's campaign reported spending more than $195,000 in the primary – or about $18.24 for each of the 10,705 votes that he received.

Mathis seems to have weathered the primary challenge and, as of Friday morning, was the leading vote-getter. Mathis' campaign spent less than $27,200 in the primary and received more than 11,300 votes. That works out to less than $2.40 per vote.

Democrat Jose Sigala, a Tulare City Council member who was running second as of Friday, did even more with even less than Mathis on a cost-per-vote basis. Sigala received 10,990 votes after a campaign that spent just over $24,000 – or about $2.20 per vote.

A third Republican, Jack Lavers, ran in fourth place after his campaign spent more than $73,000 but garnered only 4,313 votes, which works out to $17.06 per vote.

Tim Sheehan: 559-441-6319; Twitter: @TimSheehanNews.