Originally published in the North Coast Journal
If the recent campaign finance disclosures for both Eureka and Humboldt County races are any indicator about how high the stakes are in this election, it is clearly evident that a number of special interests locally continue to fervidly pour oodles of cash into the election — a total of almost $1 million in just cash and loans alone in this election season.
Consider this: Whoever sits on the Board of Supes over the next four years will likely be updating the road map of Humboldt County development, the General Plan, ending a 12-year long standoff that has fractured this community. Then there is a Eureka riddled with a number of horrible ailments — so many that in the city’s fragile state any more stress could very well break it. The city is on the verge of insolvency. Most of its higher administrative staff is fleeing for greener pastures. The prospect of two massive developments — the Forster-Gill project and the Marina Center — may further challenge already strained infrastructure. This upcoming council will have to juggle that while attempting to cauterize a bleeding budget without paralyzing services.
Added to the stakes in this election is the prospect of a substantial power shift — particularly for Eureka, where the traditional power brokers, representing many of the city’s most influential and powerful businesses, will have to face a politically progressive-leaning, and potentially less friendly, council. It could well be the reason why a group of these businesses are anteing up a good chunk of change to prevent that from happening. And what is clear from a reading of the latest round of financial disclosure documents — which detail fundraising and spending through Sept. 30 — is that the candidates who are supported by the Eureka establishment have raised massive amounts of cash compared to their opponents.
Marian Brady (candidate for City Council from the First Ward), Frank Jager (candidate for Mayor) and Mike Newman (Third Ward) all raised nearly four times the amount of money as their opponents in the first wave of the election. These are the same candidates that pledged not to take more than $500 per contribution this year, in the name of keeping big money out of the races. And although their opponents — Larry Glass, Peter La Vallee and Ron Kuhnel, respectively — share a few common donors, Brady, Jager, and Newman collectively received $10,750 from the same 17 donors, and many of their contributions came in at $500 a pop.
The 17 financial benefactors who gave to those three above candidates are also the same players who frequently, and generously, give to non-progressive, business-friendly candidates at the county level. Here’s a list: S&W Properties, Lisa Slack and Slack Family LLC, Robert Barnum and Barnum Timber, Kramer Investment Corp., TJS Leasing and Holding Company, Harvey Harper, C.P.A. John Fullerton, Glenn Goldan and ReProp Investments, Maxine Maples, Hilfiker Pipe Co., Eureka Oxygen, Shaw and Peterson Insurance (Newman works here), Lundblade and Company, and Rob McBeth, owner of O&M Industries, through the Humboldt Builder’s Exchange PAC, which he chairs, along with three other members of his family. This doesn’t include a number of other regular and similarly connected donors who only gave to two of the three candidates.
All told, Brady has raised $19,440, against Glass’ $5,169; Jager has raised $16,616 to La Vallee’s $5,133; and Newman has raised $16,497 to Kuhnel’s $4,384.
Glass received 14 contributions of $100 or more, the single largest being $500. His largest contributors are the Eureka Firefighters PAC ($500), Donna Brown, a Eureka Real Estate Broker ($475) and Thomas Preble, Retired of Eureka ($450). He has spent $1,499.
Of La Vallee’s 27 contributions of $100 or more, not one was over $500. His largest donors are Thomas Preble ($325) and four donors at $250: Marion Amber, Robert Fasic, James Tenney, and Roy Greshaber. He has spent $3,123.
Kuhnel got 17 contributions of $100 or more, with the highest being one $500 contribution. His largest donors are the Eureka Firefighters PAC ($500), Thomas Preble ($350), and Betty Kuhnel ($250). He has spent $4,928.
Newman got 42 contributions of $100 or more, with more than half at $500. He has spent $7,792.
Jager raked in 41 contributions of $100 or more, and 21 that were $500 or more, including Amy’s Delight and Jackie and John McBeth of O&M Industries (both $1,000). He spent $9,229.
Finally, of the 43 contributions of $100 or more that Brady received, more than half were $500. She spent a total of $14,990, making her the largest spender in the race.
Kuhnel remains steadfast that his modest earnings, coupled with his experience and past public service work, will keep him competitive, as he doesn’t expect to raise, or personally invest, that much more in the race.
“Mr. Newman has obviously raised a huge war chest from the large business interests, real estate, developers, and his pals at the Chamber of Commerce,” Kuhnel said in an e-mail. “I think I am competitive now as I clearly have the superior message for Eureka voters.” Newman was contacted but didn’t respond before deadline.
Brady said she plans to raise at least another $5,000 before the race’s end. “There’s huge issues going on,” Brady says. “People support the people who they think will move them forward. What this shows is broad-based, community support.”
Kuhnel, a critic of the campaign finance ordinance, sees the finances in the race so far as an indicator for how future races will play out with the cap in place, particularly with the ordinance doing nothing to address the costs of running an election.
“I pointed out the danger of a candidate with strong ties to a constituency that could easily stay within the $500 individual donation cap,” Kuhnel said, “and still raise substantial sums of money.”
No single donor has spent as much in support of countywide candidates as the Blue Lake Rancheria. The tribal powerhouse in the region has dropped almost $70,000 between Neely, Fifth District candidates Patrick Cleary and Ryan Sundberg and incumbent District Attorney Paul Gallegos this election. Another surprising up-and-coming large donor is the Humboldt County Deputy Sheriff’s Organization PAC, which apparently had enough cash to give $28,000 to Bass ($8,500), Cleary ($9,500), and DA candidate Allison Jackson ($10,500). And Bill Pierson, whether as an individual or through his company Sedgefield Properties, has donated a combined total of $28,000 this election between both Neely ($18,000) and Cleary ($10,000) — an obvious benefactor to progressive candidates running for the Supe seat.
Much the criticism levied toward Neely by her opponent, current Eureka Mayor Virgina Bass, involves the amount of cash she raised outside of the county, and from Pierson. Only four of the 91 documented contributions came from outside Humboldt in this cycle, three of which are elected officials she works with. She has raised a total of $139,289 to date — $55,145 in this cycle — and spent a total of $112,546. While Pierson did donate another $8,000 this cycle, many of her contributions were under $1,000.
Neely scoffed criticisms of her accepting out-of-area contributions, elaborating that it’s not where the funds come from but why they fund you to begin with. She also noted that she received many small contributions from within the county, but overall she views the donors funding her opponent as trying to sidestep long-term smart growth by propping up a candidate who represents their interests.
“I won’t stand for it,” Neely wrote in an e-mail, “and the public deserves to know there is a difference between the two candidates in this race.”
Meanwhile, Bass said that she is supported by a diverse group of people, including students retirees and developers. She said she found it ironic that Neely now criticizes some of her donors when the same people had supported Neely’s campaigns in the past.
Bass isn’t completely innocent, however. Many of the same people and businesses funding pro-Marina Center candidates in Eureka have collective dropped hundreds of thousands in every contentious county race this election to ensure sweeping success for their candidates — which include Bass. To document the elaborate web of funding between these developers, real estate brokers and financial institutions in Humboldt would take more space than allocated here. But taking a small sample of the 17 business interests mentioned above, who all funded the same Eureka candidates, you begin to see another financial force in elections here, one often glossed over. These businesses divided their gifts between Bass, Sundberg, Jackson, and Assessor candidate Johanna Rodoni: Robert McBeth ($9,100 total), Kramer Investment ($8,500), Shaw and Peterson Insurance ($7,500), Eureka Oxygen ($6,000), Lundblade and Co. ($6,850), Hilfiker Pipe Co. ($6,500), TJS Leasing and Holding Co. ($5,500) and Humboldt Builder’s Exchange ($5,000).
Of the all the races, the Assessor’s has been the most dramatically impacted by special interest money. Rodoni has raised almost $100,000. Assistant Assessor Mari Wilson, a political neophyte, has raised a third of that ($31,960), and largely from her own pocket.
Ultimately, the question here is: “Is it just a coincidence that these same interests funded the same candidates with the same perspectives that just happen to benefit them, or was there a concerted plan to to fund all these candidates in moderate individual amounts? Is it better or worse than single donors dropping ginormous amounts of cash in a single thrust?”
Whatever the answer, there’s no shortage of interested parties dropping cash in this election — especially, in Eureka, on one side of the aisle.