More costly campaigns during COVID? Councilwoman asks about raising contribution limits

A changing election landscape and a global pandemic has some Long Beach politicians asking how the city can raise its cap on political contributions to help fuel campaigns through a longer election cycle and—presently—one where volunteers may be hesitant about knocking on doors.

Councilwoman Mary Zendejas, who chairs the Elections Oversight Committee, asked the city attorney’s office to start looking at the issue on Tuesday. Zendejas joined the council in November by virtue of a special-election victory. She said the city should look at increasing the $400 limit from individual donors to help those campaigning through the pandemic and beyond.

“Any time that you’re fundraising it’s always a struggle,” Zendejas said Wednesday. “I needed to struggle to fundraise since my campaign was a little different because a lot was based on mailing, because I wasn’t able to access a lot of the front doors of the residents due to inaccessibility.”

Zendejas, who uses a wheelchair, said that the larger contribution amounts allowed during special elections—$1,000 from individuals and $2,500 from political action committees—helped level the playing field for her.

Regular elections cap City Council donations at $400, $600 for citywide office donations and $800 for mayoral campaign contributions.

The pandemic could present a new normal where more campaigning is done through the mail rather than in person, driving up the cost, Zendejas said. She asked for a report back later this year to see how the city could adjust for regular elections.

There’s a catch, though. Changing any contribution limit would likely require voter approval.

Deputy City Attorney Amy Webber explained that because of the 1994 Campaign Reform Act, which was adopted by voters and installed as part of the city’s municipal code, changing it would also require a vote by the people.

It would likely require just a simple majority vote because it wouldn’t be installing a new tax, Webber said, but getting to a majority might be a challenge.

“Those things tend not to be popular with voters when you talk about increasing limits,” Weber said.

She added that the council has been able to amend other things around the periphery of the act, like when it voted to triple office-holder account limits and rules dictating how those funds could be spent by candidates, but changing the actual amount permitted from individual donors is up to the people.

Long Beach’s limit of $400, which can be given by an individual to a candidate in both the primary and runoff periods of an election, is on the lower end compared to its neighbors.

Los Angeles, which employs a full-time council, has a cap of $800. San Francisco has a limit of $500. San Diego ($600), Huntington Beach ($600) and Seal Beach ($500) are all higher than Long Beach. Those three cities combined are still less than Anaheim’s whopping $2,100 contribution cap.

The lack of uniformity in contribution limits was highlighted in a 2016 report by Common Cause, which showed that less than a quarter of California cities had local contribution limits and just 15 of the state’s counties had laws limiting how much individuals could contribute to campaigns.

California is in the minority of states that do not have laws in place to limit contributions in local elections.

If Zendejas’s idea moves forward, how much the contributions could be increased is not clear.

Councilman Roberto Uranga, vice chair of the Elections Oversight Committee, said he supported raising the limits but didn’t have a number in mind. He said the additional 5 months of campaigning required by the city’s forced-alignment with the state’s election cycle mean it “definitely has to go higher.”

But Uranga questioned if this could pass a vote by the people under the current circumstances.

“Not in this climate,” he said. “With the coronavirus, we’re looking at budget cuts, changes to services; it’s a tough environment. Now we’re asking people to give more for campaigns?”

Councilwoman Stacy Mungo, the 3rd member of the committee, shared her doubts about the need to raise contributions and the impact of the expanded election cycle.

Mungo said that campaigns have dead periods where they naturally wind down and use less money. People campaigning now would likely ramp up efforts in August for the November election, she said. She also questioned if the council would or should put resources behind getting such a measure before the voters while the city is simultaneously experiencing a major budget deficit.

“I’d love to take money out of political campaigns completely,” Mungo said. “I’m not sure that it’s possible in this political climate, but I’m open to finding a bold new solution to ensuring that people’s voices are heard.”

All 3 members of the committee raised well over $100,000 during their last elections.

The report Zendejas requested could come back from the city attorney by November, meaning it’s unlikely any change will affect the current campaign. After this year, the next regularly scheduled election in the city is 2022, when the city’s odd-numbered council seats, including Zendejas, Uranga and Mungo, will be up for a vote. The mayor’s seat is also up for grabs that year.

Zendejas said she has no plans to move forward quickly with any proposed changes but said that eventually the limits should be raised, even if the current health crisis passes before the rules are altered.

“We don’t know if that’s going to be the case if we’re going to be cleared or if it’s going to be a new normal for us,” Zendejas said of the pandemic’s impact on this year’s elections. “In light of that, that’s where my curiosity began to see if we could maybe raise the limits.”

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Jason Ruiz covers City Hall and politics for the Long Beach Post.
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