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].