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The Campaign Finance Game

Both Sandra and Ben, two young, progressive candidates, have made it clear that they want to remove money out of politics and overturn Citizens United. But until campaign finance reforms at both the national and state level are enacted, what should be the criteria for judging the financial purity of each candidate?
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Are you following the Democrat versus Democrat California State Senate election in District 26, Ben Allen vs. Sandra Fluke? If so, then you probably read recent press about Bill Bloomfield's more than $1 million spent to support Ben Allen's candidacy. These recent articles underscore much larger issues that have little to do with the actual political caliber of Ben or Sandra as representatives of this district. Instead these articles address the greater need for campaign finance reform.

I am a resident of Senate District 26. I, along with Ben Allen, Sandra Fluke, and Seth Stodder, was one of the eight candidates in the primary election for this race. My prior Huffington Post piece explores the roles of financial and political capital and some of the key complications with campaign finance. Ben and Sandra emerged as the first and second place vote-getters after the primary. After careful deliberation, I chose to endorse Ben for State Senate. I believed then, as I do now, that he is genuinely concerned with the current and historical problems of the hard-working families in our District; he shares my values, my connection to California, and my vision for the future. I wanted to post this piece to disclose the complexities of campaign finance and show how level the playing field actually is between these two candidates.

How Is a Campaign Funded?

Generally, political campaigns can be funded directly by a candidate's personal contribution(s), individual donors, or special interest groups. Independent expenditures (IEs) can also be made by a third-party who is not permitted to coordinate the spending with the campaign.

What Are the Roles of Name ID and Personal Wealth?

In order for people to vote for you, they need to know who you are and why you are running for office. Money is needed to pay for literature and staff to contact voters and tell them your story. A candidate can choose to limit the influence of personal wealth when she/he accepts a voluntary expenditure limit at the time of filing nomination documents to run for office (see Section 1, Chapter 4 of the Los Angeles Country Registrar-Recorder/County Clerk Candidate Handbook & Resource Guide). According to government-issued voter guides, Ben Allen accepted the limit; Sandra Fluke did not.

Regarding actual contributions to their campaigns according to the California Secretary of State, Ben contributed $50,000 as a loan to his campaign early in the primary. Sandra has contributed almost three times as much in loans, monetary, and non-monetary contributions as recently as mid-October.

At an October 12th debate in Brentwood, both Ben and Sandra admitted that they are not currently working. How then can two unemployed under-40 year olds afford to spend in one campaign more money than a minimum wage earner who works full-time earns in one year? By looking at the Form 700 Statement of Economic Interest filed with the California Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC), I discovered that each candidate's access to capital is not equal. The Form 700 requires disclosure in ranges (i.e., $10,001 - $100,000; $100,001 - $1,000,000, etc.). Because these ranges are so broad, I cannot accurately estimate the net worth of either candidate without a possible distortion of true values. I want to shed light on the inaccuracies, not add to the confusion.

National name ID has provided Sandra an opportunity to speak on cable and network television news interview shows about a myriad of issues relevant to Los Angeles voters. In every interview since she announced her candidacy, these speaking requests are turned into free advertising time for her campaign platform. However, the FCC does not require equal airtime for candidates on "news interview" shows. I applaud Sandra and her team for getting her access to our important media market but I am disappointed that news programs have not provided equal time, or in the alternative, have not excluded campaign conversations from the program. Most recently, Sandra spoke on The Ed Show on Thursday, October 30 for approximately four minutes about her campaign. Sandra has been on various MSNBC shows no fewer than six times during this campaign for two to four minutes per appearance. The Ed Show is shown on MSNBC, owned by NBCUniversal Media LLC but her appearance is considered a news interview on a news interview show. It is not considered a contribution and is not required to be disclosed as such to the FPPC. Unfortunately, the piece included many misrepresentations and Ben was not provided an opportunity to go on air. If Ben wanted to pay for equal time on air, he would spend upwards of $40,000 for one thirty-second spot, based on current media market buys.

Who can Contribute to a Candidate's State Senate Campaign?

In addition to personal contributions, a candidate can receive funding from any individual donor who is a U.S. citizen, but no individual can give more than $4,100 each in the primary and in the general election. In addition, corporations, Political Action Committees, unions, and other advocacy and interest groups can contribute. A Los Angeles County-native, Ben Allen has focused on running a local race for a local position with the bulk of his fundraising efforts on raising money in and from California. According to the non-partisan website MapLight in collaboration with Voter's Edge, 93.9 percent of Ben's donations have come from in-state contributions. Meanwhile, more than a third, or 38 percent, of the funding Sandra has received during the campaign has come from outside of California. If you remove her aforementioned personal contributions, 48 percent of her contributions of the remaining funds are from out-of-state.

What about Independent Expenditures?

Independent expenditures (IEs) are defined by the FPPC as "an expenditure for a communication that expressly advocates the nomination, election or defeat of a clearly identified candidate or ballot measure that is not made to -- or at the behest of -- an officeholder, candidate, or committee." The funder is not permitted to coordinate the IE with the candidate. Bill Bloomfield's spending to support Ben or oppose Sandra fall under this category. But while recent ads may imply otherwise, Sandra has also received support from third-party IEs. So has Governor Jerry Brown and Attorney General Kamala Harris and the majority of candidates running for a state or federal office.

Both Sandra and Ben, two young, progressive candidates, have made it clear that they want to remove money out of politics and overturn Citizens United. Both support supplementing small, individual donations with public financing. But until campaign finance reforms at both the national and state level are enacted, what should be the criteria for judging the financial purity of each candidate? Has Ben been "bought" by Bill Bloomfield? Has Sandra been "bought" by NBCUniversal? The answer to both of these questions is "No." Having debated alongside both candidates, I respect them for wanting to bring progressive change and integrity to Sacramento. I am optimistic that the voters can see through the fear mongering and compare the candidates on their legislative records and policy initiatives so that true campaign finance reform can prevail.

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