One of the arguments made by single-member council district proponents is that Anaheim is so big that the cost of communicating with so many voters prices potential candidates out of the running – especially Latinos – and allows special interests to dominate the elections. Carving the city into single-member council districts, the argument goes, diminishes the significance of campaign warchests by making it easier for a candidate to win in this smaller voter universe by walking precincts.
There is no denying that an ample campaign warchest is preferable to a small one, and that running a robust campaign mailer effort in Anaheim isn’t cheap. However, that isn’t the decisive factor, and the candidate who spends the most money isn’t necessarily the one who wins.
Another mantra of the single-member district cult is “only three Latinos have been elected to the Anaheim City Council in 156 years.” The intellectual dishonesty of that claim aside, it’s illuminating that when one of the those Latinos, Lou Lopez, was first elected, he came in first even while being vastly outspent by the candidate who finished second, Bob Zemel. From a February 10, 1995 Los Angeles Times article:
The cost of being elected to the City Council was dramatically different for Bob Zemel and Lou Lopez.
Zemel, who had placed third in the two previous elections, spent more than $108,000 for last November’s win. Lopez spent $34,000, according to financial disclosure records reviewed this week.
“All the power-brokers said I couldn’t do it my way,” Lopez said Thursday. “People can’t believe I won on that kind of money. I was told I would need a minimum of $60,000 to get elected in Anaheim. But I’ve been involved in politics for 15 years, won three elections and have knocked on a lot of doors. I didn’t just come out of the woodwork.”
Other top-spenders included: Paul Bostwick, who finished in fourth place after spending more than $80,800, about half of which was his own money; fifth-place finisher Sharon Ericson, who spent about $55,300, and seventh-place finisher Leonard Lahtinen, who reported expenditures of more than $47,800, of which $29,000 was his own money.
Candidate Shirley McCracken, running for a council seat for the first time, managed to finish third while spending only $20,500.
In other words, the first and third highest vote getters – Lopez and McCracken — were the candidates with the poorest campaigns in terms of spending.
If money were everything, John Leos would be on the Anaheim City Council; after all, the Orange County Employees Association spent almost $1 million promoting his candidacies between 2010 and 2012. Attractive candidates who work hard, have a record of civic involvement, and who impress voters with his or her issues, priorities, personality and character can and do beat candidates with bigger warchests. At the same time, even the most extensive and ubiquitous grass-roots campaign won’t elect a bad candidate; some candidates lose votes by campaigning door-to-door and giving voters the opportunity to meet and talk with them.
The better, more freedom-friendly way to ensure council candidates are able to raise more funds and reduce the influence of independent expenditure campaigns would be to eliminate campaign contribution limits, or at least dramatically increase those limits. The long experiment in limiting campaign contributions is a failed one. Money will find its way into campaigns because the 1st Amendment guarantees our right to free speech. Contribution limits disproportionately impact candidates with a limited network of active and potential donors — which would tend to be first-time or outsider candidates.