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Cash grab: New Times breaks down the dollars pouring into the 24th Congressional District race

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Everybody wants a piece of California’s 24th Congressional District.

Last April, longtime Congresswoman Lois Capps announced that she would retire at the end of her term. Political jockeying and campaign fundraising didn’t hesitate. Within a few days of her announcement, contenders were already proclaiming their intentions to grab the seat, and additional candidates weren’t far behind.

MONEY MATTERS :  Candidates in the 24th District Congressional race get their money from a variety of sources. - GRAPHIC BY ALEX ZUNIGA
  • GRAPHIC BY ALEX ZUNIGA
  • MONEY MATTERS : Candidates in the 24th District Congressional race get their money from a variety of sources.

In the 13 months since, millions of dollars have been raised to get those candidates to the finish line. As far as congressional races go, it may well be the most hard fought and expensive contest that voters on the Central Coast have ever seen.

The district, which includes SLO and Santa Barbara counties and a sliver of Ventura County, leans Democratic, but is winnable for Republicans, making it a key swing seat nationally. It’s got Republicans seeing red potential and Democrats prepared to do whatever they can to keep the district blue. 

To make things more interesting, the primary election isn’t limited to party brackets. Per California election laws, it’s a “jungle primary,” meaning the two highest vote getters advance, regardless of their party.

With that competitiveness comes money. A lot of money—money from individual donors, established committees, and secretive Political Action Committees. Who are these donors, and what do they want? How will they influence the election, and how could that influence the victor’s policymaking?

So far, according to campaign finance filings with the Federal Election Commission (FEC), the four top fundraisers in the race are Salud Carbajal, a Santa Barbara County supervisor and the Democratic frontrunner; Justin Fareed, a Santa Barbara area native who’s vice president of his family’s business ProBrand Sports and a Republican contender; Katcho Achadjian, a Republican currently serving as the 35th District state Assembly member; and Helene Schneider, the city of Santa Barbara’s mayor and a Democrat. 

Salud Carbajal (D)

When it comes to cold hard cash, Santa Barbara County’s 1st District Supervisor Salud Carbajal is leading the fleet.

According to the most recent filings with the FEC, Carbajal’s campaign has amassed a war chest of nearly $1.7 million between April 2015 and March 31, 2016, more than any of the other 24th District candidates so far.

It isn’t just the sheer amount of money Carbajal has raised, but where it’s coming from that gives him an advantage. 

Carbajal has emerged as the Democratic Party’s pick to win the seat and earned the endorsement of outgoing 24th District Congresswoman Lois Capps. With the party’s blessing comes funding, specifically from Political Action Committees (PACs) with ties to Democratic organizations, issues, and other candidates.

PACs are organizations that can raise money to support or defeat legislation, ballot initiatives, and political candidates. The PACs that donated to Carbajal’s campaign so far represent traditional power centers and issues within the Democratic Party such as labor unions, women’s rights, and immigration reform. In addition to receiving donations from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and VoteVets, other PACs backing Carbajal include the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and United Food and Commercial Workers International Union Active Ballot Club, both of which donated $10,000 each, the maximum allowed under federal election law. Carbajal’s campaign also received donations from Committee for Hispanic Causes PAC, Border Health PAC, and the campaign committees of prominent Democrats including Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Maryland) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.

In total, Carbajal has received more money from PACs and other committees than any other candidate in the race thus far. According to the FEC, the campaign has received more than $189,000 from PACs and other political committees. That’s roughly 11 percent of the campaign’s total donations.

When asked about accepting PAC money, Carbajal was quick to note that the vast majority of donations to his campaign, nearly 89 percent, came from individual contributors. Many of those contributions came from within the 24th District. Carbajal characterized the individual and PAC donations as signs of the diversity and wide appeal of his campaign.

“I’m proud of the broad support I’ve received,” he said.

UCSB Political Science Professor Eric Smith, who’s been watching the race closely, wasn’t surprised that local, state, and national organizations devoted to Democratic issues were backing Carbajal.

“He’s been around; he’s worked for their issues,” Smith said. “He’s been on their side when they needed him.” 

While Carbajal’s campaign gets some of its support from the Democratic Party establishment and its power bases, the former Marine and son of immigrants disputed the notion that he was an “establishment” candidate.

“I’m the son of a farmworker; I immigrated to this country; I lived in public housing. … I’m far from what you’d characterize as an establishment individual,” Carbajal said.

While his campaign’s coffers have benefited from the current campaign finance system, Carbajal said he was an advocate for campaign finance reform. In fact, his campaign was endorsed and received money from End Citizens United, a PAC that advocates for overturning the controversial Supreme Court Decision responsible for the flood of outside spending and so-called “dark money” into the country’s elections.

“I’ve always been a proponent of campaign finance reform,” Carbajal said. “And I’m hoping that we can work to achieve more results in that area.” 

Justin Fareed (R)

The politically ambitious 27-year-old captured the attention of those closely watching the race when he started 2015 hot and brought in enough contributions to be considered a serious contender in the money race.

NOT SO LOCAL:  The highly competitive 24th District congressional race is drawing attention, and money, from outside California. - GRAPHIC BY ALEX ZUNIGA
  • GRAPHIC BY ALEX ZUNIGA
  • NOT SO LOCAL: The highly competitive 24th District congressional race is drawing attention, and money, from outside California.

Since then, Fareed has steadily raked in the money, even though the momentum has slowed in the recent two quarters. As of his most recent filing, Fareed had raised a little more than $1 million since January 2015.

The lion’s share of that money has come from outside the 24th District, setting him apart from the other candidates. While he’s received as many contributions from inside the district as he has from outside, those contributions haven’t been as generous, as many of the out-of-district donations have hit the limit for individual contributions. Under federal law, the maximum amount a person can contribute to a candidate is $2,700 for the primary and $2,700 for the general election for a max total of $5,400.

The bulk of that outside money comes from Los Angeles. Fareed’s expenditure reports show that in 2015, the campaign hired Pluvious Group LLC, a consulting firm run by Matthew Jubitz—a lucrative fundraiser in the greater Los Angeles area who has worked for Mitt Romney’s and Marco Rubio’s presidential campaigns.

Many of the maxed-out donations come from individuals employed in the health care industry, including several employees of two different companies and their family members.

Several employees at SnF Management—a West Hollywood-based nursing and rehabilitation services provider that operates throughout California—gave Fareed maximum donations, all together totaling almost $40,000. Those include maximum contributions from SnF Management Chief Operations Officer and co-founder Lawrence Feigen. There are several other contributors with the last name Feigen, including a few with professions listed as “student” or “homemaker.” In total, the Feigens gave Fareed $32,400.

Maywood Healthcare and Wellness Centre—a nursing home in Maywood—seems to follow a similar pattern. The facility’s administrator, Chiam Kolodny, gave Fareed the maximum amount, as did several other Kolodnys, totaling about $40,000.

So far, the only major independent expenditure (money spent in favor of or against a candidate, but not in coordination with their campaign) was spent to support Fareed. Citizen Super PAC, which works to get conservative candidates elected, spent almost $50,000 to support Fareed.

Michael Latner, a Cal Poly professor and director of the university’s Master of Public Policy program, sees some of Fareed’s contributions—and key endorsements from congressional representatives around the country—as a sign of support from the Republican establishment on a national level, which has granted Fareed access to its purse strings. That may be in part because he’s an up-and-comer who can be, Latner said.

“He’s clearly the top choice of the establishment, and that probably reflects his ties to Washington,” he said of the former Capitol Hill staffer.

UCSB professor Smith doesn’t necessarily agree and said that a lot of the money is from family and friends rather than “known, wealthy Republican activists.”

“Otherwise he’d be getting large amounts of money from D.C. or New York,” Smith said.

“[Fareed’s] pattern of donations is so odd that I’m not sure that it tells that much about him or his chances of winning,” Smith said.

Fareed’s family is definitely connected to the medical community: His family owns ProBrand Sports Inc., which manufactures braces that prevent repetitive stress injuries, and his father is a successful and well-known orthopedic surgeon.

Fareed, who was among Capps’ Republican challengers in the 2014 elections, said that a lot of the support he’s received—both financially and politically—comes as a result of getting into the community to meet people.

“People are seven times more likely to support a campaign, a candidate, or a cause that they hear about from a friend or someone they know,” he said. “I think that’s why you’re seeing so much support behind my campaign—because the philosophical or operational approach has been from the bottom up.”

Fareed, a vocal critic of the Affordable Care Act, added that a lot of his contributors appreciate his campaign’s major thematic message—tackling the gridlock and insider horse-trading that’s commonplace in the nation’s capital.

“I don’t necessarily think that my support is one party or another, but a bunch of people that are deeply concerned with where our country is headed and the fact that other candidates aren’t doing anything about it,” he said. 

Katcho Achadjian (R)

Until recently, Achadjian’s relatively low fundraising turnout surprised many and sparked skepticism that asked if he was prepared to wage a campaign robust enough to get him through the primary.

The state Assembly member and former SLO County supervisor has since picked up some steam, though he is still well behind Fareed in the money race. 

Smith said the competitiveness between Achadjian and Fareed speaks to a rift within the Republican Party that’s led to fragmented support for different candidates, both locally and nationally.

“You would expect that the leading Republican office holder would be in first or second place in fundraising,” UCSB’s Smith said. “The fact that he is behind Salud Carbajal or any other Republican that isn’t an office holder is surprising.”

Achadjian attributes the late fundraising—he’s raised a total of $667,185 thus far—to something else.

“Being an assemblyman is a full-time job, so I have to let that be the priority,” he said. “It doesn’t give me as much time to be out there raising money.”

Achadjian said that while two other candidates have out-raised him, he still has a large number of total donors, which speaks to the kind of support he’s attracted.

“That means that our support is coming from the everyday people that can’t afford to write us a big check,” he said. “Those are the most loyal supporters that I wish to have. They worked very hard to earn that dollar amount. You know it’s coming from the heart and not from the big wallets.”

The bulk of Achadjian’s fundraising comes from established families and businesses within SLO County, particularly from those involved in agriculture, real estate, or development.

Familiar family names on that list include Filipponi, Conway, Daou, Braebeck, Firestone, Grossman, Hayashi, Kester, Kirk, Maas, Martin, Rossi, Goodrow, Sinton, Souza, Tompkins, Thompson, Wittstom, Woolpert, and a few others, including the owners of Tolosa Winery.

He also received funding from individuals who work in health care and insurance, and local and state politicians.

Achadjian, an Armenian immigrant, has seen significant financial support from the tightly knit Armenian community. Many of those donors are in Los Angeles. 

Where Achadjian has lacked in fundraising, he’s made up in endorsements. He’s been endorsed by every single Republican member of both the California state Assembly and Senate, several local elected officials including SLO County Supervisor Lynn Compton and Paso Robles Mayor Steve Martin—a moderate Democrat running for the county’s 1st District supervisor seat.

The Santa Barbara County Republican Party endorsed Achadjian, while the San Luis Obispo Republican Party did not endorse a candidate, which meant he couldn’t receive endorsement from the California party.

Those endorsements, in addition to his experience, are what sets Achadjian apart from Fareed and still makes him competitive, Cal Poly’s Latner said.

“He’s well known among rank and file members in California, he’s connected around the state, and he’s been able to cultivate the perception that he’s a moderate,” Latner said.

Historically, Achadjian has been attacked for contributions from and votes accommodating the oil and gas industry. Those haven’t had a strong presence in Achadjian’s fundraising however, and he’s thus far gotten only a few modest contributions from industry PACs.  

Helene Schneider (D)

While her campaign may not be packing as much financial firepower as some of her competitors, Santa Barbara Mayor Helene Schneider isn’t giving up on running a competitive bid for the 24th District seat. 

So far, Schneider’s raised $577,155 between January 2015 and the end of March 2016, a far cry from Carbajal and Fareed. The bulk of Schneider’s donations, nearly 99 percent to be exact, came from individual contributions. Speaking with New Times, Schneider said her numbers indicated the support of a wide array of voters in the district.

“I’m thrilled by the broad range of support from people,” she said. “They may not have a lot of money, but they believe and support my candidacy.”

Notable donors to Schneider’s campaign include Lyft CEO Logan Green, and Ghostbusters director Ivan Reitman, who donated $2,700 each, as well as celebrity filmmaker James Cameron and his wife, activist Suzy Amis Cameron, both of whom maxed out their donations for a total of $10,800.

While individuals can only donate so much money, FEC filings for most of the 24th District candidates contain multiple individuals who work for a single company making donations, and Schneider’s campaign is no exception. For example, three attorneys from the law firm of Keller Rohrback—which has offices in California, Washington state, New York, and Arizona—made six donations totaling $11,800.

The largest group of donations comes from the employees of a single company. Records showed 18 donations from nine employees of the New York-based Riverhead Building Supply Company totaling $48,600. Schneider said the donations were from family members. Denise Civiletti, editor and publisher of the Riverhead Local newspaper confirmed that Schneider was the daughter of Diane Goodale Sadowy, daughter of Riverhead Building Supply founder Jesse R. Goodale II.

Familial support aside, with the bulk of donations coming from individuals and PAC donations making up little more than 1 percent of her campaign’s current funding, Schneider and her fundraisers had to put in a good deal of footwork to get out and raise money.

“Unfortunately you spend a lot of time asking for dollars as opposed to getting your message out,” Schneider said.

Like Carbajal, Schneider is also vocally for campaign finance reform, stating that running has reaffirmed her opposition to the Citizens United decision, which she said has “poisoned the well” on Capitol Hill, a sentiment that works well with the anti-“Washington insider” position she’s taken with her campaign.

“I’ve seen time and time again in races throughout the 24th District that the top dollar does not always equal the most votes; what matters is connecting with the voters,” Schneider said. “That’s what campaigning is all about. It’s connecting with people and not being beholden to interest groups or the establishment in D.C.” 

The others

TOTAL CONTRIBUTIONS:  Total candidate contributions for the 24th District Congressional race through March 31, according to FTC campaign filings. - GRAPHIC BY ALEX ZUNIGA
  • GRAPHIC BY ALEX ZUNIGA
  • TOTAL CONTRIBUTIONS: Total candidate contributions for the 24th District Congressional race through March 31, according to FTC campaign filings.

The five other candidates in the race have had mixed results raising money. Lacking broad support from potential voters, special interests, and their respective parties’ funding, most have turned to self-funding to stay in the race.

Matt Kokkonen, a perennial Republican candidate, has loaned himself $210,500, and has only received $2,445 in individual contributions. As of press time, neither John Uebersax, an independent, nor Benjamin Lucas, a Democrat, have reported any contributions. Steve Isakson, a “decline-to-state,” has loaned himself $45,010, and has spent about one-third of that.

Bill Ostrander is a Democrat running on a platform that’s primarily advocating for campaign finance reform. Ostrander raised $31,883, and loaned himself $13,350. He said campaign fundraising was a “love-hate relationship.”

Ostrander won’t take any PAC or corporate money, which immediately puts him at a disadvantage. Still, he’s willing to play the money game—to a point—because he wants voters to be exposed to the issues he’s bringing into the race.

“Let’s just say you have the best message in the world, but those people that live in rural areas, or don’t read the media, or haven’t had the opportunity to attend the debates,” he said, “in order to reach those people candidates must resort to the lowest rung of communication: sound bites, TV commercials, and mailers.”

That such a critical facet of running a campaign hinges on short television commercials is one reason Ostrander is critical about the current campaign finance paradigm, where the focus is on raising money to fund the dissemination of sound bites.

“That becomes the priority agenda for a candidate just to raise money. Then we lose on the discourse, the quality of discourse, and then candidates are in a position where they’re willing to compromise as soon as they begin,” Ostrander said. “I think it’s important to understand that a candidate is going to legislate the same way they run their campaigns.”

While Carbajal has received backing from the pro-campaign finance reform End Citizens United PAC, Ostrander was suspicious. He said the PAC came out of nowhere in 2015, and is run by a group of former Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee operatives. He questioned where the group’s focus on repealing Citizens United ends and their interest in supporting Democratic candidates begins.

“They basically have tried to put the lipstick on the pig,” he said. “What they really are is a fundraising arm for swing district candidates.” 

After the spring

All things considered, the real race hasn’t even begun.

Both Latner and Smith said that once the two preeminent candidates emerge from the primary, the money coming in to support each side will quickly climb into the multi-millions.

The big money, likely coming from PACs, Super PACs, or large party donors, is waiting for a clear picture of which candidate to support, Smith said.

“If you are a PAC that’s aligned with one of the two parties, this is a good race to become involved in. It’s leaning Democratic, but could be won by a Republican,” he said. “For the same reason, if you’re a national PAC, how do you choose between Carbajal or Schneider or Fareed or [Achadjian]? Smart money would go in after the June election. You want to make sure that you’ve got at least one person from your party in the final two.”

That could be in part why Carbajal has jetted ahead of the rest of the pack with the help of establishment money—the Democrats have rallied around him and are banking that he’ll advance past the primary.

For Republicans, larger donors are a little more hesitant, instead potentially waiting to see who emerges past the primary.

“For a lot of the big strategic PACs and Super PACs, they don’t necessarily care who it is,” Smith said.  

Staff Writers Jono Kinkade and Chris McGuinness will be keeping a close eye on the myriad 2016 ballot races. Send any observations to jkinkade@newtimesslo.com or cmcguinness@newtimesslo.com.

-- Melody DeMeritt - former city council member, Morro Bay

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