San Jose mulls major changes to campaign finance law
San Jose Councilmember Sergio Jimenez is pictured placing a yard sign in front of a District 2 home. Photo by Nadia Lopez.

San Jose lawmakers are looking to overhaul the city’s campaign finance regulations in hopes of avoiding more ugly political contests in 2022.

Councilmember Sergio Jimenez introduced a proposal, updated from an earlier version discussed in November, that includes a requirement that campaign committees file mailers with the city clerk, an online repository for all campaign ads, more detailed disclosures for campaign literature and a cap on contributions from “corporations with conflicts of interest.”

“To many voters, unfortunately, they believe what they see and believe what they read,” Jimenez said. “And because of this, I think it really creates toxic campaign practices that really diminish public trust.”

The proposal follows a dramatic and costly election cycle in 2020. The District 6 race between Councilmember Dev Davis and challenger Jake Tonkel was fraught with accusations of racism and misinformation from campaign ads that alleged Tonkel supported defunding the police and building high-rise housing in single-family neighborhoods. An ad from the Silicon Valley Organization showed Black people in the streets, surrounded by tear gas, and asked “Do you really want to sign on to this?”

Opponents spent more independent expenditure money against Tonkel than any other City Council candidate in 2020.

“Not only is it an electoral-specific issue, but it impacts the day-to-day operations of our community and its well-being,” Tonkel told San José Spotlight.

Although the City Council advanced the proposal, a few members, including Mayor Sam Liccardo and Councilmember Matt Mahan, shared concerns that its language wasn’t clear enough, and would target a specific set of groups who donate to local campaigns.

“Deciding that only folks who might be ideologically on one side can’t give, but folks on the other side can give … I’m concerned about the way that it seems to be unbalanced,” Liccardo said.

The city has strict rules on donations and spending for campaigns controlled by candidates. But there are few regulations for committees and campaigns not controlled by candidates, such as those led by the South Bay Labor Council, the San Jose Police Officers’ Association and the now-disbanded SVO political action committee, which pumped hundreds of thousands of dollars into the last election cycle.

“We have gotten negative campaign flyers, which isn’t very fun,” Councilmember Sylvia Arenas said. In February 2020, a website linked to the SVO PAC featured an attack ad containing an image of Arenas with her skin darkened, leading some Latino community members to call the image racist. Her opponent, Jim Zito, did not personally contribute to the ad.

“I think identifying who is part of that independent expenditure allows for us to have greater truths to be told in those flyers,” Arenas said.

Citing an analysis by Maplight, a national nonprofit campaign finance watchdog, Jimenez said around 40% of contributions in the 2020 election cycle came from outside San Jose. The analysis showed that donors from affluent, majority-white and minority-Hispanic neighborhoods are more likely to contribute money to candidates than in minority-majority neighborhoods.

Jimenez’s proposal includes a concept for a publicly-financed election, similar to systems in cities like Seattle.

In a publicly-financed election, the local government gives each registered voter a voucher they can spend on any candidate. Campaigns must adhere to strict rules in spending the voucher, and can’t use the money to foot personal expenses or donate to other contests. Property taxes fund publicly-financed elections, and proponents say it levels the playing field and allows voters of all incomes equal footing.

“I hate asking people for money, I’d prefer not to do it,” Jimenez told San José Spotlight. “I think every candidate would say the same thing. So what if there was a way that a candidate, if they were able to show a certain level of viability … with everyone starting off with the same amount of money? That seems very clean to me.”

Liccardo had difficulty supporting all of Jimenez’s proposal, but said he was open to hearing other solutions.

“We’re not providing enough services to take some of that money to spend on elections,” Liccardo said. “I think a lot of taxpayers and residents will understandably have some concerns about that.”

The council directed city officials to come back with another report on the possibility of campaign reform at a later date.

Contact Lloyd Alaban at [email protected] or follow @lloydalaban on Twitter.

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