In Santa Clara County, politicians can fundraise for their campaigns all year and keep the excess money to pay off incurred debt.
That’s much different than campaign finance rules in San Jose, which has strict laws to prevent officials from holding year-round campaign accounts that critics say undermine politicians’ integrity.
“People running for office are already viewed as compromised by accepting money for various interests,” said Pierluigi Olivierio, a former San Jose councilmember who served from 2007 to 2016. “If you’re going to (fundraise) 365 days a year while you’re in office, that continues.”
Both San Jose and Santa Clara County have rules that are stricter than the state, but the county’s approach to fundraising is novel in that it allows elected officials to fundraise the entire time they’re in office. San Jose only allows candidates and elected officials to fundraise 180 days before an election.
Supervisorial races allow candidates to fundraise and spend up to $250,000, while countywide district attorney, assessor and sheriff’s candidates can fundraise and spend up to $500,000.
Ethicists say the lax rules present many inequities between wealthy candidates and candidates of regular means.
“I do think the ability to loan yourself $250,000 and then fundraise to pay yourself back, introduces the possibility of really deep inequities in political representation,” said Jonathan Mehta Stein, executive director of California Common Cause, a government ethics watchdog.
Another major difference between Santa Clara County and San Jose: Once elected, county lawmakers are not required to dispose of excess funds. But in San Jose, after an election is certified, candidates can only do three things with their excess funds: Pay attorney fees, turn over the money to the city’s general fund or return contributions to donors.
County candidates and elected officials can also use excess funds to help campaign on behalf of other candidates.
“All donors want the candidate to know, ‘this is from me and I want you to be grateful,'” said John Sims, professor emeritus of constitutional law for McGeorge School of Law at the University of the Pacific in Sacramento. “I’m not saying I’m giving it to you for a corrupt reason, and you’re not accepting it for any corrupt reason but I want you to know that I’m the one that gave you this money.”
Elected officials at the state level can also fundraise year round according to California law, Sims said.
Over the years, San Jose and Santa Clara County adopted their own campaign finance rules to ensure fair elections.
“Here in California we allow local governments, cities, counties and school boards to adopt their own charters,” said San Jose Ethics Commissioner Adrian Gonzales. “So what you’ll see in cities like San Jose, we create laws to really reflect local values… (local governments) can create laws that are essentially more stringent than the state framework.”
The city and county also don’t have the same rules about maximum contributions.
In San Jose, campaign contribution limits are capped at $600 per council candidate and $1,200 for mayoral candidates. The cap on county contributions is $1,000 for candidates in supervisorial and countywide races.
These rules are intended to level the playing field, Gonzales said, so incumbents don’t have too much of an advantage over new candidates running for office.
County rules are a bit different, but still governed by state laws and local ordinances.
“In addition to this ordinance, we also follow the California Political Practices Commission (FPPC) and the Political Reform Act,” said Evelyn Mendez, a spokeswoman for the Santa Clara County Registrar of Voters.
Oversight and limited training
The city’s ethics commission provides oversight of candidates’ campaign spending, while the county’s Registrar of Voters is responsible for ensuring compliance of county laws and oversees campaign spending. Complaints can also be made to the FPPC, which ensures compliance with state law and can enforce violations that are financial conflicts of interest, laundered campaign contributions, over-the-limit gifts and contributions and improper use of campaign funds.
While San Jose has its own ethics commission, it doesn’t have money for compliance training for candidates, Gonzales said.
“In most other cities with ethics commissions (Los Angeles, San Diego, Oakland, San Francisco and Sacramento), they have additional staff dedicated to compliance training,” Gonzales said, adding that he’s working on obtaining more funding for the board so that it can perform education and compliance training.
Meanwhile, the Santa Clara County Registrar of Voters is responsible for maintaining compliance with campaign finance rules, though training is scant here, too. Trusty resources for candidates to look at are the FPPC’s educational materials.
If someone considers running for public office, Gonzales said, nothing should be construed as legal advice unless it comes from either the city attorney, county registrar of voters or the FPPC.
“This is one of the most complicated areas of law,” Sims said. “Because you’ve got the constitutional aspects, detailed regulation aspects from (state and local) statutes and regulations and the interaction of all the different layers of government.”