The latest turn in the race to replace disgraced former county Supervisor George Shirakawa, Jr. features the Santa Clara County Democratic Party filing a complaint against candidate Teresa Alvarado, alleging that she illegally coordinated with a political action committee. Alvarado and fellow candidate Cindy Chavez, who has also been accused of illegal campaign coordination and is supported by the county Democratic Party, will face off in a July 30 special election.
With only three weeks left in the race, an important debate is now being waged on what constitutes unfair campaign assistance.
According to the complaint filed with the FPPC, Democratic Party Chair Steve Preminger alleges that Alvarado and newly-hired campaign consultant Jim Gonzalez met on June 19 with the San Jose Silicon Valley Chamber of Commerce Political Action Committee (ChamberPAC), which has endorsed Alvarado.
Gonzalez told the Mercury News that the meeting did take place, but, he said, “There was no agreement, no consultation and no discussion, so therefore there is no coordination.”
Last week, Preminger sent a letter to District Attorney Jeff Rosen asking that he get involved in the dispute, as the election is quickly approaching. A day earlier, the FPPC sent a letter to the Alvarado campaign asking for its side of the story before making a decision on whether to open a formal investigation.
With dueling complaints now having been filed with the FPPC—the political watchdog group dismissed a coordination grievance filed last month by Alvarado’s camp—the definition of “coordination” is receiving close scrutiny.
“In general, you can’t coordinate or convey detail-type information about campaign strategy to an independent expenditure organization,” Gary Winuk, chief enforcement officer for the FPPC, tell San Jose Inside. “They can talk about their attributes or the attributes of their candidate, and make a general request for support. Once you get into specifics about tactics, strategy, that sort of thing, is when it becomes illegal coordination.”
Winuk declined to comment on the complaint filed against the Alvarado campaign because it is an ongoing investigation. The Alvarado campaign did not respond to requests for comment.
The complaint against Alvarado comes almost two months after her own campaign accused the Chavez camp of unfairly coordinating with the South Bay Labor Council Committee on Political Education (COPE) and the county Democratic Party’s United Democratic Campaign (UDC). Both groups previously acted as independent expenditure committees in the November 2012 election, but they now claim to be purely member committees. Mailers sent by COPE and UDC were practically identical to those sent out by the Chavez campaign prior to the June 4 primary for Shirakawa’s seat.
Both campaigns have defended their actions based on the particular nature of their activity, rather than arguing that coordination hasn’t taken place. Chavez campaign manager Ed McGovern, who did not return calls for comment for this story, previously told San Jose Inside that the campaign coordinated mailings through clever navigation of the state’s campaign laws. And Alvarado’s consultant Jim Gonzalez, as quoted in the aforementioned article, seems to rest his defense on the nature of his remarks at the Chamber PAC meeting.
The FPPC cleared the Chavez campaign of wrongdoing on the grounds that the SBLC COPE and DCC UDC mailers were sent only to members of those organizations, which in the case of the UDC includes any registered county Democrat, and not just those who pay party dues.
When reached by San Jose Inside, a Chavez spokesperson said that the campaign did not file the complaint against Alvarado and declined to comment further. The complaint was signed by the DCC’s Preminger, who has previously worked with Chavez as part of the central committee and at Working Partnerships USA. Adding a bit of irony to all of the gamesmanship, the Democratic party and the South Bay Labor Council were expected to support Alvarado if Chavez chose not to run for the seat.
But the ramifications of these complaints may extend far beyond the election itself, given how both campaigns have responded.
Speaking generally about independent expenditure laws, Bob Stern, the FPPC’s first general counsel and so-called “godfather” of political reform in California, said: “The idea is that independent expenditures are supposed to be, well, independent and not coordinated with the candidate.”
Stern, who left the FPPC to head the Center for Governmental Studies, explained that coordination occurs when a candidate and independent expenditure organization share information and decision-making. Yet many candidates often push the boundaries of campaign laws.
“A lot of independent expenditures are done with a wink and a nod and are not truly independent,” he admits, adding that he is not completely familiar with either of the complaints made against Alvarado and Chavez. But Stern says the FPPC is doing the best it can with a small staff.
“It’s a very difficult task to do,” he says, “and I don’t think they have enough resources right now.”
A review of the complaint against Alvarado should be completed in the next couple of weeks, according to the FPPC’s Winuk: “We’re definitely sensitive to the fact there’s an election going on.”
H/T to The Daily Fetch.