Elections in the United States require big money. The 2016 presidential and congressional elections saw a combined $6.5 billion spent by candidates seeking the top seats of governmental power.
While Long Beach elections pale in comparison to the sums expended on national races they do require tens of thousands of dollars for starters, sometimes reaching into the hundreds of thousands of dollars in competitive districts or citywide elections like mayor, city attorney or city prosecutor.
The 2014 mayoral election saw then-candidate Robert Garcia, former National Football League player Damon Dunn and a host of eight other challengers spend more than $2.8 million combined. Garcia ($669,000) and Dunn ($817,000) made up about half that total. The race was reported as the most expensive mayoral race in city history.
This election cycle has seen about $1 million raised for Long Beach candidates, not including Long Beach Unified School District and Long Beach Community College District governing board positions. Those numbers are based off of forms filed with the city clerk’s office through February.
Five council districts and the mayor’s seat are up for a vote this year. While some districts (Districts 3, 5 and 7) have multiple challengers vying for the seats, others like District 1 where Lena Gonzalez has been appointed to a second term because no challengers filed paperwork to run, or District 9, where Vice Mayor Rex Richardson is running against an opponent who has suspended his campaign, have led to situations where funds have been raised for a race that is not, or may not be happening.
Other citywide positions like city prosecutor and city attorney have also been appointed with surpluses of over $120,000 in combined campaign funds raised.
The mayoral race will not top the spending mark set in 2014 as Garcia, who has raised about $400,000, is facing an opponent who says he has a few hundred dollars on hand. Still, Garcia said he intends to run a full campaign, noting that mailers from his campaign went out last week. He added that he would “cross that bridge when we get there” regarding the potential for any surplus funds and what he might choose to do with them. He noted that he doesn’t like raising money, but it’s a part of campaigning.
“I take every election seriously regardless of who’s running,” Garcia said. “You never know who you’re going to run against and we raised much of this money before the filing deadline closed.”
So what happens to the money if it’s not being spent on a campaign?
Deputy City Attorney Amy Webber said that candidates were briefed on their options recently as some had realized that there may be a surplus and wanted to be aware of their options. The first would be to repay the city for any matching funds the candidate may have applied for.
Then they could donate to charities or nonprofits, transfer to office holder accounts—subject to annual contribution limits—and in the event that any money is still left over after those avenues are exhausted the city’s municipal code dictates that the city’s matching funds account would absorb the surplus.
Or the candidates could go on a spending spree.
In the mayor’s case that means spending about $270,000 over the next month to vanquish an opponent who has no endorsements and has thrown one fundraiser. Richardson has about $51,000 and Gonzalez $31,000.
Candidates can also transfer a portion of any surplus funds—up to $25,000 per election cycle—to their office holder accounts but the transfers would be subject to annual contribution limits.
For citywide positions like mayor that cap is $75,000 and for council offices the limit is $30,000. So, if an incumbent council member had $10,000 in their office holder account they could transfer a maximum of $20,000 of surplus campaign funds but then would be blocked from taking in any more money for that year.
Or they can contribute to other campaigns, which has already happened from council member to council member, as a result of a vote taken last April that made it okay for office holders to contribute out of their office holder accounts to other candidates. Those contributions though would be limited to the campaign contribution caps which is $400 for city council and $800 for citywide offices.
“If you want to say good luck to a colleague by giving $400 it isn’t really enough to sway an outcome in a race,” Richardson said. “I think it’s okay to be helpful. Nothing can be done without five votes. If good people are running for office, I want to support them because ultimately I care about the city, all levels of the city.”
Four of the five campaigns Richardson has donated to are people running for Long Beach offices including Long Beach Community College District Board of Trustee candidate Uduak-Joe Ntuk who is vying to unseat long-time trustee and former city councilman Jeff Kellogg. Richardson recently gave Ntuk a $10,000 in-kind contribution.
In an email to the Post, Gonzalez, who has no opponent and has been appointed to a second term as First District councilwoman, said she will donate to nonprofits and invest in improving voter turnout in her district. While her name won’t appear on the April 10 ballot, several key state and local votes will take place this year including a charter reform and potential rent control initiatives here in Long Beach, gubernatorial and United States Senate votes as well as the vote for mayor.
“Even though I am not on the ballot, our district has historically had the lowest voter turnout,” Gonzalez wrote. “With these funds, we can encourage more people to turn out in both the primary and general election, which is needed.”