Op-Ed: Flood of Money From Developers, PACs Undermines Democracy in Sunnyvale

It’s flood season in Sunnyvale, but not because of unexpected storms or rising sea level. This flood comes in the form of cash aimed at Sunnyvale’s municipal elections.

Every election season PACs, developers and corporations inundate the city and other Bay Area municipalities with campaign contributions and every season the integrity of the election process suffers.

In a research article by the good government group Common Cause, Sunnyvale was specifically mentioned as a jurisdiction that allows campaign contributions to local candidates that exceed state limits.

The city even has the dubious distinction of having its very own PAC (Sun PAC), that donates to developer-friendly candidates. In addition, favored candidates benefit from large independent expenditures that tilt elections in favor of powerful donors.

In 2013, two candidates, Glenn Hendricks and Gustav Larsson, benefited from over $70,000 each in independent expenditures from the National Association of Realtors.

No wonder Sunnyvale is one of a relatively few cities in California that don't have rent control for mobile homes or a ban on no-fault evictions. But the story doesn't end there. Billionaire developers also contribute mightily to seemingly inconsequential municipal races. What interest do billionaires have in local municipal elections in Sunnyvale? The answer is simple: huge potential profits.

This strategy of placing friends and allies in high places yields stunning results: Exhibit A is the recent approval of an enormous development on the last large piece of undeveloped land on El Camino in Sunnyvale (Butcher's Corner) despite vocal and spirited opposition from many who live in that area.

At the same time, Sun PAC takes donations from a who's who of builders with projects in the city Including the Irvine Company, two different billionaire developers, mobile home park owners, PG&E and many others. These corrupting influences unfairly skew the field on which Sunnyvale politics is played in favor of those with large business interests in the city and against the average citizen.

What’s the solution to this problem?

A number of cities including New York City, Seattle, Washington, as well as the state of Maine have grappled with this issue and implemented systems such as vouchers and matching funds to even the playing field in municipal elections. In California alone, 109 cities have already adopted contribution limits on city council races.

As a candidate I am only taking donations from individuals—no PACs, no donations from corporations, no donations from developers, and no donations from 501c4 organizations that often act as PACs. It’s tough to say no but it is for the public’s interest. If I can do it so can other candidates. I challenge candidates in local races to follow my lead.

Seasonal floods of campaign contributions slowly erode the faith of the people in our democracy and that’s why California cities need to adopt some type of campaign finance reform similar to those in the examples cited earlier.

The current status quo is a dagger aimed at the heart of our local democracy and its institutions: doing nothing is a luxury we simple can’t afford.

Joshua Grossman is a candidate for Sunnyvale City Council, Seat 2, and chair of Sunnyvale’s Housing and Human Services Commission. Opinions in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of San Jose Inside. Send op-ed pitches to [email protected].

13 Comments

  1. So why did Jude Barry set up a PAC using money from developers in Santa Clara pouring thousands in a police officers association?

  2. How about Union PACS, Joshua? Will you take money from them? Most candidates who eschew PAC money are grandstanding, because they’d never get it anyway.

  3. Many People believe Jude Barry is a Big Bad Wolf hiding in Sheep’s “Clothing” as he represents Lisa Gillmor’s interests and the main “Consultant” to the Related Company’s six billion project on the property across the street from Levi’s Stadium….

    • The question is for Stephen Ross is why he should employ a guy who has spent thousands of Related’s money, I mean thousands on three candidates who did not get elected, thousands on Caserta who abused women, and has insisted the city hire his business partner as an attorney who has blown the voting rights case. This is about Sunnyvale, I know, but to the extent that those developers are acting in their self interest is less of a threat to democracy than Barry who undermines ethics and morality.

  4. > In California alone, 109 cities have already adopted contribution limits on city council races.

    Money is speech.

    Limiting contributions for political races is limiting political debate.

    In my opinion, the amount of money spent on educating the public on issues is absurdly, ridiculously trival. Two dollars per vote? Pppphhhtttt! That’s NOTHING! A fart in a hurricane.

    More money is spent per capita to educate people on what brand of toothpaste to buy than is spent on “democratic” elections.

    The reason that “democracy” is so awful is that voters are s-o-o-o-o-o-o uninformed.

    The reason that SOME interests have to spend so much money in elections is to overcome the ignorance and apathy of voters. The alternative to spending campaign money is to accept the ignorance and apathy of the status quo, and the special interests who benefit from the status quo.

    Think of campaign spending as a down payment on “hope and change”.

    Joshua Grossman LIKES the idea that campaigns should be limited, so other candidates are constrained in their ability to examine and criticize his bad ideas.

    I like the idea of limiting Grossman’s political career.

    • You wrote, “The reason that SOME interests have to spend so much money in elections is to overcome the ignorance and apathy of voters.”

      I challenge you show us a single example of a developer who spent money to overcome voter ignorance.

      Developer’s spend money to support candidates who will approve the General Plan amendments required to give the developers a big return on their investment. They’re in it for money, not for any concept of the general good or the best interests of the residents.

      • Mr. Frazer, I am at a loss as to why there is so much developer hate in CA. We live in a city that has 1970s ranch starter homes in gang territories and poor performing school districts selling for $1.4M. A 150 sq ft studio can rent for well over $1000. This is a fundamental problem for everyone in the city. Price controls on rent and labor will not solve it only make it worse.

        There is only one group of people that can solve this problem, developers. Developing residential property is mind-boggling complex, unbelievably risky, racked with a myriad of bureaucratic, political, and labor frustrations, and extremely expensive. One would have to be absolutely crazy to be a developer, especially here in California/Bay Area.

        Building houses and apartments is in itself a public good, full stop. If you want to live in a city your kids can raise a family in the house they own or tenants not pay 50% of their take-home pay to some slumlord, people will have to back off developers. The city recently published a cost analysis of development and the estimated developer return was 10%-15%. For the effort they put in, the risk, the sheer nonsense they tolerate to get in return 10%-15% is nothing. Private equity returns are far better for zero work.

        The level of most voters understanding of the layers of laws/permits/controls the city, county, and state have on development is what Mr. Bubbles is referring to. The reality is that tenants and many homeowners have no idea what it takes to build here, let alone how those controls make rich homeowners richer with no effort or risk on the backs of the poor. When they try to do something like Measure B, which may have been flawed, some activist CC member strawmans it by saying “B is for Billionaires”.

        When we are at this level of economic illiteracy, how much developer’s money on education does it take to get back to even?

        • Why so much developer hate you ask? Why because they have massively overbuilt the commercial office space and continue to do so. Then they use the imbalance of commercial to residential that they created to try to force more residential development. Meanwhile existing residents are reeling from horrendous traffic, strapped city services, more pollution and just incredibly reduced quality of life. So no, we do not need more developer money in politics, they’ve done a pretty good job of screwing up the South Bay in the last 10 years and it’s time to just say no to more development.

          • That is an interesting perspective, I had not considered it. I took it on face value that it was in response to the city council’s to need to improve the jobs-to-housing ratios so we can balance the budget. (SJ is about .85 and needs to be 1.3)

            I guess I was also naive to think the growth in office space was to meet the demand of the global success of Facebook, Google, Apple, Cisco, Intel, eBay, etc. Actually, there is a wiki page on all the SV companies, pretty interesting when you see it all in one place:

            https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_companies_based_in_the_San_Francisco_Bay_Area

            I would think the political donations by these developers to convince so many entrepreneurs to move here, plant these fantastic ideas and technologies in their heads, and launch these companies and industries was the most effective money spent in the history of political corruption. How they convinced so many talented people to leave their city, their state, their country, and live in the Bay Area just so developers can overbuild commercial office space and force city councils to build more houses. I hope they got in pre-IPO on a few of them since they were such a factor in their success. Truly impressive. Now you can disagree with their tactics, but you can’t criticize the execution.

  5. > They’re in it for money, not for any concept of the general good or the best interests of the residents.

    Andy:

    Where to begin.

    I’ve been trying to explain civilization to the tribal forager class for a long time now, and I need to remind myself from time to time that there is a huge chunk of humanity — likely the majority or humans — who are never going to get it.

    The forager class is inherently single minded — their mindset is simply focused on their next consumption event. When do they eat next? Where do they sleep when it starts raining? What do I want to do next? Have sex or look for food?

    Oh, and the forager class is obsessed with “fairness”.

    Anthropologists have identified this behavior as “immediate return” ethos.

    https://gfbertini.wordpress.com/2011/09/20/immediate-return-vs-delayed-return-societies/

    Modern civilization is based in “delayed return” which relies upon some humans accumulating capital (“money”) to plan and produce things that the forager class is too stupid to realize they are going to want in the future.

    “Developers” are people who are planning and producing the housing that you and your primitive cohort are going to want to live in the next time it rains.

    There. One more time, I’ve explained civilization to a paleolithic hunter-gatherer in a loincloth. I don’t get paid for this, but I should.

    • Condescension only works if you are actually correct. Spouting off an inane theory that people opposed to development are feeble minded “foragers” developers are the key to civilization doesn’t make you smart but does make you look foolish.

      • > Spouting off an inane theory that people opposed to development are feeble minded “foragers” developers are the key to civilization doesn’t make you smart but does make you look foolish.

        Lori:

        Thanks for clearing things up.

        I had no idea I was wrong.

  6. People look down on undeveloped countries, and at the same time hate developers.
    People decry gentrification. Would they rather have ghettoization, or slums?
    Snowflakes are a confused lot.

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