Donation From Candidate’s Mom Draws Scrutiny—But Did It Also Violate California Election Law?

The mother of a 13th State Senate District candidate raised concerns that she ran afoul of California election law by bankrolling a committee to help get her son to Sacramento.

But Linda Browningg—the 84-year-old mother of Burlingame councilman and SD13 contender Michael Browningg—was apparently in the clear when she poured $460,000 into a newly formed independent expenditure committee named Californians Supporting Brownrigg for Senate 2020.

Unlike direct contributions to a candidate, which are capped at a certain threshold, donations to independent expenditure (IE) committees have no limit—but there’s a catch. California law forbids IEs from coordinating with the candidates they support.

While a spokesperson for the Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) declined to comment on the specifics of the Brownrigg contribution, a campaign manual published by the watchdog agency says that the state considers it improper coordination if an IE is “principally funded by an individual immediate family member of the candidate.”

Though the FPPC forbids immediate family members from contributing to IE committees, it limits that prohibition to what state election law defines as “immediate family member[s] of the candidate”—that is, spouses and dependent children.

However, there’s another potential violation involving the same committee. Alan Eagle—a community member who runs the committee after formally endorsing Michael Brownrigg—apparently filed multiple donation reports past their due date.

State law requires IEs to file within 24-hours for contributions of $1,000 or more in the 90 days before the election. The late filing can carry a penalty of $10 a day—or $20 for state committees—and a fine of up to $5,000 per violation.

But Michael Brownrigg defended his mom and said her donation to the IE took him off guard. “I was flabbergasted and completely surprised and proud that she would believe in me like that,” he told San Jose Inside in a phone call Tuesday. Later, he added: “I love my mom and I’m touched that she believes in me like this. It’s a lot to carry in some ways.”

When asked about concerns abou the elder Brownrigg’s contribution, however, Michael Brownrigg bristled at the suggestion that his mom did anything wrong.

“I’m not an election law expert,” he said. “I had no idea my mother was thinking about doing this … I guess it can be done? I was just as surprised as anybody else, so I don’t know what to say. … I don’t think you can assume that my mom broke a campaign law. I don’t think that’s a fair assumption.”

Brownrigg said his mom is “a private person,” but that he realizes she relinquished her anonymity by making such a newsworthy donation.

Michael Brownrigg said what his mom did for him was no different than what the father of Eleni Kounalakis did for his daughter during her run for lieutenant governor in 2018. That year, Kounalakis’ dad gave $5 million to an independent expenditure committee supporting her bid, which drew some scrutiny from the press—although the FPPC never investigated the matter.

When reached by phone Tuesday evening, Linda Brownrigg seemed annoyed by questions about her remarkably generous IE contribution.

“I’m very embarrassed that it’s public,” she said. “But I don’t really want to talk to a reporter about this right now.”

She added that she just wanted to express her support for her son.

“I’ll just say that I’m very happy for Michael and very proud of what he’s doing,” she said.

When asked if she knew about concerns raised by her donation, Linda Brownrigg said that was news to her. “I had no idea,” she said. “I went on advice from someone else.”

She declined to disclose whose advice she followed. Then, she hung up.

Michael Brownrigg is jockeying with six other candidates to replace termed-out state Sen. Jerry Hill (D-San Mateo). Come March 3, he’ll be competing for the open seat against Redwood City Councilwoman Shelly Masur, Menlo Park entrepreneur Josh Becker, ex-Assemblywoman Sally Lieber, Millbrae Councilwoman Annie Oliva, software engineer John Webster and Los Altos resident and lone Republican in the race Alex Glew.

Jennifer Wadsworth also contributed to this report.

This article has been updated.

Grace Hase is a staff writer for San Jose Inside and Metro Silicon Valley. Email tips to [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter at @grace_hase. Or, click here to sign up for text updates about what she’s working on.

12 Comments

  1. You want to go after an 84 year old woman for donating to her son’s campaign. You must really be pissed at Joe and Hunter Biden for grifting millions from the Ukraine and China.

    What, you got swamp fever?

  2. What about the mother who loves her son or daughter but can’t afford to pave a political career for them? Are they supposed to sit back and watch their offspring get beaten by candidates with rich parents?

    The problem here is that she’s not simply using her privilege to create opportunities for her son, she’s taking those opportunities from other people to give to him. It’s not like there are infinite seats of elected office. Every dollar she spends to make it easier for her son to get elected is making it harder for less privileged people to compete against him. That is far from what the democratic process is supposed to be about.

    Worthy of note that State Senate candidate Anthony Phan did something very similar a couple years back, but more dishonestly, masking his parent’s contribution as his own money. Considering that the FPPC confirmed it was investigating that episode a few years back, it would be interesting to see a follow-up to that story.

    • So what’s your spin on the Kennedy dynasty passing there money around. She is not taking anyone else’s opportunity she didn’t take it from those people, she earned that opportunity. Very democratic idea!

      • You have no idea that she earned that money! She might have earned it totally on her own, she might have earned it partially on her own utilizing social structures she was born into, she might have inherited it, there is a lot of black-and-white with a lot of grey in between when it comes to judging how much person a credit deserves for their success. I am actually a big believer in free markets and much more sympathetic to rich people than most Democrats, but the speed with which some conservatives are willing to give up their rights as democratic citizens is just astounding to me, all for this religious belief that having wealth means you inherently deserve to have wealth. Yes, the wealthy contribute to society, and they have been thanked appropriately — that’s what the money was for. That doesn’t mean they’ve earned the right to buy our political offices.

    • > What about the mother who loves her son or daughter but can’t afford to pave a political career for them? Are they supposed to sit back and watch their offspring get beaten by candidates with rich parents?

      Short answer: YES.

      Money is speech. More money = more speech.

      The “rich” are rich because they do things that LOTS of people appreciate. Like make a valuable product or service. People want MORE of what “rich” people do.

      The mother her “loves her son or daughter but can’t afford to pave a political career for them” but wants her son or daughter to be a powerful political bigwig is the worst kind of selfish political “stage mother”.

      Just give her unaccomplished offspring a participation trophy and leave elective offices for people who do more for more people.

  3. This certainly sounds like an independent expenditure, because junior was surprised to hear that Mom donated so much money on his behalf.

    But it could be that whoever is running this PAC was slow to file receipt of the two contributions they received so far.

    And money has been considered the same as speech since Buckley v. Valeo.

  4. What’s the Cupertino connection to this SJI article about Michael Brownrigg’s bid for Senate District 13?

    Cupertino, or very nearly all of Cupertino, is served by Jim Beall in Senate District 15. Beall terms out in 2020 and Cortese, Khamis, and Ravel vie to replace him. Cortese and his misplaced advocacy in favor of CASA Compact a couple years back makes him untouchable for many who pay attention to policy. Kinda hard to say about Khamis and Ravel, though. Probably neither of them is a strong resident advocate like Michael Brownrigg. In Santa Clara County mostly we must contend with the best politicians money can buy.

    Last I heard, it takes about $3 million in campaign contributions to be a viable contender for a State Senate seat, though Scott Wiener commands far more, just look at the honey pot of real estate money he documents in his 460 forms.

    Mom’s $0.46 million contribution is helpful seed money for Michael Brownrigg, but if people want to get really angry about big money in elections, look at donations candidates receive from non-relative business and special interests.

  5. Random references to Cupertino—not part of the Senate District 13 (except maybe in the very northwestern tippy-top that borders Los Altos?)—that Brownrigg aspires to lead, are fair game comments, but suggestions that voters look at the 460 forms of in-name-only “housing crusaders” Shall Not Be Published?

    What gives, Super Fly?

    Derogatory content? Nope. Factually incorrect? Nope. Uncomfortable? Probably.

    No one even bothered to send a confirmation email. Just poof.

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