The October 26, 2021 Legislative Policy Committee should have been subtitled “Money Wins.”
By Denise Robb
The State of California imposed $4900 contribution limits for candidates running in the City of Pasadena. But there’s a loophole. Cities are free to impose their own limits or none at all. Mayor Gordo and the Council decided unlimited money was what they wanted and they held a hearing last week then passed it to the Legislative Policy Committee. At both hearings, a total of forty people spoke and over 186 signed or wrote letters, all in favor of limiting money in politics. But Mayor Victor Gordo and Councilmember Steve Madison seemed pretty adamant that not only did they want to remove the $4900 limits and make them unlimited, but they want to do it as soon as possible in time for the upcoming election.
Jonathan Mehta Stein, the Executive Director of Common Cause was invited to speak. For approximately 20 minutes he gave an exhaustive account of why we have contribution limits, why this bill was passed, what other cities have done and the three reasons why contribution limits are essential.
- Quid pro quo: you don’t want to give someone a $50,000 check and have the councilmember be beholden to them;
- Legalized corruption: even if it’s not officially bribery, there’s a “subtle tilt toward the person who donated.” Donors are heard more, get more meetings, have more contact with the person to whom they donated; and lastly,
- Perceived corruption: 77% of all Americans support contribution limits to create more trust in our democracy and credibility among the candidates.
Mr. Mehta Stein mentioned that the most common contribution limit for cities Pasadena’s size is $1,000. Many have limits of $250. He thought $4900 was too high. He discussed the dangers of having too little money (hard to compete) as well as too much. Mayor Gordo responded that Independent Expenditures cause candidates like him to have a need for large donations. He cited the Apartment Owner’s Association giving $35,000 to his opponent Terry Tornek as an example of a reason he needs to be able to raise unlimited funds. However, one of the speakers pointed out that three couples could donate $4900 each would almost make up for the $35,000.
Councilmember Madison and Mayor Gordo seemed to have their minds made up before the hearing even began. They didn’t seem swayed by the unanimous support of the community against their position. They didn’t seem interested in the plethora of data Common Cause provided. The consensus of campaign experts is that unlimited contributions are harmful to democracy as well as creating a perception of corruption.
There were many good government ideas floated that could help with transparency and sunshine regarding independent expenditures and a number of us offered to assist with this. But the committee seemingly wasn’t interested. Councilmember Gene Masuda appeared to be the most moved by the huge community support for contribution limits, but in the end they punted it once again to possibly another Legislative Policy Committee or the full council. It’s not over but it did appear that today: money won.
Denise Robb is a Professor of Political Science at Pierce College and a resident of Pasadena.
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