Cindy Chavez’s campaign manager, Ed McGovern, acknowledged Tuesday evening that his client has a found a way to circumvent state laws that prevent independent committees from coordinating with candidate campaigns.
Chavez—who is running for George Shirakawa Jr.’s former county supervisor seat—until recently headed up the South Bay Labor Council (SBLC) and also serves as vice-chair of the county’s Democratic Central Committee. Both of these groups have been sending out political pieces nearly identical to the mailers paid for by the Chavez campaign, which resulted in a complaint filed last week with the Fair Political Practices Commission. The complaint came from the camp of Teresa Alvarado, who is the only one of Chavez’s challengers with a well-funded campaign in the June 4 primary.
California’s campaign finance laws were enacted to prevent candidates from buying elections with unlimited spending, but then came the notion that independent actors have free speech rights (see Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission). The law allows moneyed interests to influence elections through purchased free speech—provided they don’t coordinate with a candidate. But now all that appears to be out the window, if what McGovern is saying is true.
“Under the rules of the state, we can operate as coordinating committees, even though those committees in the past may have operated as independent expenditure committees,” McGovern says.
If accurate, candidate campaigns may now coordinate with deep-pocketed special interests with impunity.
“I don’t make the rules,” McGovern says, “I just follow them.”
In a recent mailer celebrating Chavez’s dedication to children in Santa Clara County, the piece notes that it was “Paid for by Cindy Chavez for Supervisor 2013.” The Democratic Central Committee’s United Democratic Campaign (UDC) sent out the exact same mailer—word for word and picture for picture. All that differed was a line stating which group paid for the piece.
Another flyer paid for by the Chavez campaign touts her former vice mayor credentials, and it includes the candidate’s website address. The South Bay AFL-CIO Labor Council Committee on Political Education (COPE) paid for a nearly identical flyer. The picture and bullet points are the same, but it substitutes Chavez website’s URL with a quote from a retired police captain.
“The Labor Council is communicating to labor household members. The UDC is communicating to Democrats, which under the state party guidelines, anyone who is a Democrat is member who we can communicate to. And the Chavez campaign is communicating to everyone else,” McGovern says. “We are allowed under the FPPC rules to coordinate, as long as we follow all of the guidelines that each group pay for the appropriate amount of costs for the mailers, postage, printing, graphics.”
McGovern could not explain exactly why these committees, formerly independent, can now freely coordinate, but the Chavez camp claims to have done its homework.
“Obviously, we know there’s going to be enormous scrutiny on all of these campaigns, not just ours,” McGovern says. “So, the notion that we would violate the law by stupidly coordinating it without it being legal is just ludicrous. I have absolutely no worries that the FPPC will agree.”
According to campaign filings with the Secretary of State, the United Democratic Campaign does not include member dues in its contribution sources. The committee has received contributions of $5,000 apiece from the campaigns of local labor-supported state legislators Paul Fong, Nora Campos and Bob Wieckowski, and it received $10,000 on May 2 from the political action committee (PAC) for the Santa Clara and San Benito Counties Building & Construction Trades Council, which is operated by Campos’ husband, Neil Struthers.
Gary Winuk, chief enforcement officer at the FPPC, wouldn’t address the Alvarado campaign’s complaint directly, but he did say: “The rule is an IEC and candidate committee cannot coordinate efforts.”
McGovern is no stranger to campaigns accused of improperly coordinating with IECs. In 2002, McGovern was fired from the San Jose City Council campaign of Ed Voss, after he was referred several times to the San Jose Ethics Board.
“It was a freaking kangaroo court, really,” McGovern says. “I got thrown under the bus because I was the consultant, and the allegation wasn’t true.”
How this latest round of accusations affect this race most likely depends on how decisively the FPPC acts. While state law would prevent the political watchdog group from investigating Chavez’s campaign before the election, it can comb through records for the SBLC and DCC’s committees, which, McGovern says, have coordinated in similar manners in the past.
“This isn’t the first time the SBLC and the DCC have coordinated on a campaign with an individual candidate,” he says. “I’m almost positive, although I haven’t been involved in it, that the Labor Council and the UDC have coordinated on a campaign.
“It’s not their first rodeo on this. They’re just coordinating on Cindy’s right now.”