Part 5: The Battle for Progressive Hearts and Minds
Editors Note: Former Assemblywoman Lori Saldaña has an up close and personal story to tell about her dealings with former Mayor Bob Filner and the Democratic party establishment. This is the end of a five part series running this week at San Diego Free Press. Part one covers her early encounters with Filner, Part two describes the indifference she met when she tried to alert Democratic Party leadership, Part three talks about the pressures brought about to gain her endorsement of the Filner mayoral candidacy. Part four is about keeping the biggest secret.
By Lori Saldaña
As voters look ahead to the next campaign cycle, we increasingly hear of battles over how to fund these elections. These range from discussions over local races to arguments before the US Supreme Court over campaign financing.
The discussions range from proposals for setting up public financing for elections, to arguments in favor of allowing unlimited private contributions from the wealthiest 0.1% of people in the country.
If money is speech, a lot of people have no chance of ever being heard.
Unfortunately, regulators such as the San Diego Ethics Commission spend their time monitoring only who gives money, and how, yet devote no time to asking the question: is this system the best way to serve the needs of the voters and government?
Perhaps an important lesson to be learned from my primary outcome was this: there is a tremendous potential power within the grassroots community to overcome the monied, privileged, moderate, Big Business friendly interests that now dominate politics at every level.
As we are seeing at every level of government: Once those with money get into office, they consistently vote to maintain the corporate tax structures that benefit them in hugely disproportionate ways, and made their wealth accumulation possible.
Putting my loss into perspective: Peters won by 719 votes and spent thousands to earn each one.
He eventually put over $1.75 million of personal funds into his efforts. He never set up an online ActBlue-style fundraising page during the primary, in part because we would have seen how few people were giving him contributions.
As with many from the money class, transparency was not his strong suit: Peters refused requests to release his taxes and placed his family finances in a private trust.
In contrast, I raised and spent about $500,000, from nearly 15,000 contributors. I shared my meager income tax reports from my 2010 legislative salary, that had been cut by 20% in my final term during the state budget crisis. (Subsequent years on a part time teaching salary would be even more meager.)
Do people who come from modest backgrounds serve differently in office? I believe we do, but we are increasingly outnumbered and outspent by those with personal wealth and a desire to buy themselves a seat on (name that elected body).
Nonetheless, I’ve heard from many who believe our efforts to highlight these enormous financial differences in the 2012 primary election were part of the reason why, in the end, we stayed within 1% of the final vote tally. It also shows why Peters was then, and even today is, considered a weak candidate.Had we been able to continue to campaign into November, I can’t imagine how many more people might have been persuaded to join the general election battle and work on my behalf, thrilled by what my victory represented to underdogs, women, working families, Latinos, progressives, the “99%” concept, etc.
But too many of the people who profess to believe in “people powered politics” didn’t believe in their own power that spring. They let others tell them I couldn’t succeed.
I believe this is what keeps many home on Election Day, especially during mid-terms. It is also what discourages more diversity in candidates.
The most infuriating conversations I had immediately after the 2012 primary were from people who would call, or text, or email etc. and say: If I had known how close this election would have been I would recruited friends to help you, or I would have given your campaign money/given more money, or volunteered/volunteered more etc. to support your efforts.
Many had refused to support me during the campaign because the Party leaders had told them “She can’t win.”
I heard from them later- they were so distraught when they saw the final tally that they sent money to help close my (small) debts, with contrite notes asking for understanding, telling me that they had believed the naysayers and had no idea the race would be so close.
My response to them now is: don’t be fooled again. In order to change the system to be more fair, we need you to understand it better.
Take the time to learn about issues and candidates, then vote your conscience, vote your interests, and vote your heart- even if it means not voting with “your” party recommendations.´That is the most radical change voters could ever make to the two-party system.
I wanted to add this to make sure people get a sense of how pervasive and permanent fundraising is to those in office, and also how routine background research and vetting– commonly done on all candidates-could have prevented Filner’s meltdown:
- Fundraising in politics is like breathing: it never ends. Some call money the “mother’s milk” of politics.
- If this is the case, early on, I developed lactose intolerance when it came to fundraising: the process upset my stomach. The current way we finance elections leads to many problems before a person ever arrives in public office, and continues as they serve.
- Once one campaign cycle concludes, another is on the horizon, either for yourself or colleagues. Funds are needed not only to spend during the campaign, but to curry favor with others by contributing to their efforts, even if you don’t have an election in the near future.
- These funds generate jobs for consultants, opposition researchers, campaign staff, advertisers… this list is lengthy, with little oversight or regulation. People can’t be promised jobs, or endorsements, or future support depending on their contributions and outcomes of elections, but…it happens every campaign cycle.
- Other expenses include polling to consider where to go next. Good, accurate polls cost from $25,000 on up, depending on method, number of questions, etc.
- (Prior to the San Diego mayor’s race, Scott Peters funded exploratory polling for at least one candidate who eventually didn’t run against Filner. Peter was rewarded with that person’s endorsement when he ran for Congress.)
- One lingering question remains: why wasn’t some of this money spent on hiring investigators and vetting Filner more thoroughly? He had a record of abusive behavior towards people in general, and women in particular. It would have been easy to find out more about him- unless people in power didn’t want it to become known until after the election.
- I have documents from my own campaigns, going back over 10 years, full of hundreds of pages of research done for and against various candidates.
- Very little about a person running for office stays secret for long: property records, media coverage, personal tax records… it is all available to be researched and bound into a lengthy report to be studied by people within and outside the campaign.
- A relatively simple investigation of Filner would have unearthed the allegations that eventually came out. Or- was it done, and the results withheld?
- Another example of fundraising for others is the necessity of “tithing” to the Speaker and other party leaders, to receive preferential Committee Chairmanship positions, or other perks of power. The Speaker in turn recycles that money into campaigns for others, up the chain of command.
- In this way, political money touches many, many others along its route from original contributor to wherever its final resting place may be.
How can people of modest means counter this?