Who influences your local politicians?
Special interest groups — mainly labor unions, agricultural groups, real estate interests, oil/energy groups and health care interests — top the list for many Republican and Democratic candidates in the central San Joaquin Valley. Generally, agriculture and business groups favored Republican candidates, while labor unions favored Democratic candidates. Oil/energy, real estate interests and law enforcement groups gave to candidates of both parties in this cycle.
There are exceptions: Rep. Jim Costa and Rep. T.J. Cox, both Democrats who serve on the House Agriculture Committee, received donations from agricultural trade groups and local farmers. Assemblyman Jim Patterson, a Republican who ran unopposed, received $17,000 from the state electrical workers’ union small contributor committee.
But individual donors from the Fresno area are also significant contributors, as well.
In the recently completed 2020 elections, At least 12 individuals contributed more than $10,000 — and in some cases, over $100,000 — to local campaigns.
The Fresnoland Lab at The Fresno Bee examined campaign contributions to local congressional and state legislative races in Fresno and Madera counties as well as the school board and school bond races in the Fresno, Clovis, Sanger and Central. districts There were no city council or board of supervisors races on the ballot this November in Fresno-Clovis as candidates either ran unopposed or won during the March primary.
Are they buying influence?
“Influence is a really difficult thing to pin down,” Thomas Holyoke, a political science professor at Fresno State, said. “There’s generally very little evidence of vote-buying. Instead, individuals contribute to get ideologically sympathetic individuals into office and keep them there.”
Special interest groups tend to “focus higher up on the food chain,” Holyoke said, because of the stake they have in statewide and national policy decisions. In local congressional and state legislative races, special interest groups tend to give much larger donations than individuals. Many special interests have set up independent expenditure committees where affiliated individuals and businesses can give with far fewer restrictions, if any.
Individual donors may contribute to congressional or legislative races because they know the candidates, or because a special interest group asked them to, he said.
But in local races — city council, school boards, school bonds — the type of influence a donor can have over financial outcomes is more clear. For example, when contractors donate to school bond measures, Holyoke explained, “They might be trying to influence the rules of the bidding for construction projects — to favor local builders, or certain design features, which would make some companies more likely to win the bid.”
Local labor unions are also significant contributors to city council, school board and school bond races. In this election cycle, local building trades, carpenters, teachers and electrician unions gave tens of thousands of dollars to a handful of candidates, including Nasreen Johnson, State Center Community College District Trustee-elect for Area 2; Carol Mills and Claudia Cazares, Fresno Unified School District trustees running for re-election, and the Clovis Unified Measure A school bond.
Earlier this year, local unions were successful in getting the State Center Community College District to approve a project labor agreement in the construction of the new West Fresno campus. Project labor agreements generally give labor unions the opportunity to bargain for wage rates on a particular job.
Is there a difference between the types of influence that labor unions and developers or contractors wield over local elections?
“Money buys access and influence, and unions, contractors, developers and other business interests are all trying to endear themselves to elected officials,” said Sean McMorris, a policy consultant with California Common Cause, a pro-democracy advocacy organization.
“When labor unions get involved, they’re usually seeking long-term policy changes that affect pay rates for their members,” McMorris explained. “With developers and contractors, they’re usually more interested in races that affect short-term policy change — they might have a project in a certain district that needs approval, or are vying for a specific contract.”
In 2015, Fresno Unified School District officials were investigated for improper contracting agreements and circumventing competitive bid requirements with Harris Construction and Bush Construction, significant donors to the district’s 2010 successful $280 million school bond, Measure X.
It’s very common and legal for developers and other special interests to donate to local political campaigns, even when those politicians are possibly deciding on matters that will affect their financial interests.
The U.S. Supreme Court established in the 2010 Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission ruling that campaign contributions are a form of free speech and protected by the Constitution.
Governments can, however, establish parameters around how much one can contribute — through limits on the amount an individual donor can give; the window of time a candidate can solicit contributions, or via mandatory disclosure requirements, such as publishing contributions.
Federal contribution limits max out at $2,800 for individuals per election cycle — primaries and general elections are separate. PACs are limited to $5,000 per cycle. And Super PACs — also known as independent expenditure committees — can make unlimited contributions.
In California, state contribution limits stand at $4,700 for individuals and businesses and at $9,300 for small contributor committees for state Senate and Assembly candidates, per election cycle. Independent expenditure committees do not have contribution limits but cannot coordinate with candidates.
In August, the Fresno County Board of Supervisors capped individual contributions at $30,000 although a 2019 state legislation required local governments to cap contributions at the state’s limit of $4,700, unless they pass their own local caps. Labor unions and special interests are also considered individuals under the county’s new law.
The city of Fresno follows the state’s limit of $4,700 per individual or business entity, and $9,300 for small contributor committees.
“Everyone has a right to give and support a candidate,” said McMorris of California Common Cause. “But there’s a difference between giving because you support their views, and giving because the candidate might give you the goodies you’re looking for.”
Who are the local donors?
A Bee examination of campaign finance records found these top donors:
- Richard Spencer, Fresno developer and contractor, gave $35,600 each to Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Tulare, and David Valadao, a former Republican congressman who is looking to win back his seat in the 21st congressional district; $26,000 for Clovis Unified’s Measure A (some donations routed through Harris Construction, where he remains on the board of directors); $20,000 to Central Unified’s Measure D; $10,000 to Sanger Unified’s Measure C; and, more than $5,200 to State Center Community College District Trustee Richard Caglia. He also contributed $4,700 to Assemblyman Jim Patterson, R-Fresno, and Assemblyman Frank Bigelow, R-O’Neals.
- Ed Kashian, Fresno developer, gave more than $30,000 each to Nunes and Valadao, $5,600 to Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, and $1,000 to Caglia.
- Bob Smittcamp, Fresno agribusiness giant, gave $30,600 to Nunes; $26,000 to Valadao; $7,500 to Patterson; $2,000 to Caglia, and $1,000 to SCCCD Trustee candidate Sevag Tateosian, who narrowly lost to Nasreen Johnson, a communications professional for ACLU Northern California.
- Shawn and Arian Shiralian, of Shiralian Enterprises and Homa Petroleum, a Fresno-based oil and gas station company, whose executives gave more than $30,000 to Nunes, $14,000 to Patterson and $4,700 to Bigelow.
- Farid Assemi, a Fresno-based farmer and developer and president of the Assemi Group, and wife Cheryl Assemi gave more than $21,000 to Valadao; $10,000 to Central Unified’s Measure D; $5,000 to Clovis Unified’s Measure A; $3,000 to Tateosian, and $3,000 to two Clovis Unified school board candidates.
- Tim Jones, Fresno/Madera County developer and water attorney, gave $13,200 to Costa and $2,500 to Caglia.
- Don and Judy Peracchi, Westlands Water District farmers, gave $13,200 to Costa and $5,000 to Valadao.
- Stewart and Lynda Resnick, Los Angeles-based agricultural titans and owners of The Wonderful Company, gave $11,200 to Costa and $5,600 respectively to rivals Rep. T.J. Cox, D-Fresno, and Valadao.
- Darius Assemi, Fresno-based developer and president of Granville Homes, gave $5,600 to Cox; $5,500 to Costa; $5,000 to Clovis Unified’s Measure A; $5,000 to Central Unified School Board candidate Jeremy Mehling; $5,000 to Tateosian, and $2,500 to Fresno Unified School Board trustee Carol Mills.
- Bruce Kopitar, Tulare County inventor, president of US Tower and owner of two Woodlake marijuana companies, gave more than $50,000 to Nunes.
- Barbara Grimm-Marshall, co-owner of Bakersfield-based Grimmway Farms, and husband Darcy Marshall contributed more than $90,000 to Valadao.
- Brent Smittcamp, president of Smittcamp Enterprises, gave $31,00 to Valadao.
Additionally, local construction and architecture firms gave $10,000 or more to the Clovis Unified, Central Unified or Sanger Unified school bond advocates, including, Bush Construction, Cook Land Company, SIM-PBK Architects, Teter LLC, Westech Systems, WCP Developers, Lennar Homes, Assemi Group, Harris Construction, Karsyn Construction, Mark Wilson Construction, and Cencal Services.