The city has a solution, but it’s on hold.

by Ashley McBride

July 10, 2024, 8:51 a.m.

Four years ago, Oakland’s political watchdog, the Public Election Commission, released a report that helps shed light on a small part of the chaotic past few weeks in the municipal life of the city.

The PEC’s report, “Race for Power: How Money in Oakland Politics Creates and Perpetuates Disparities Across Income and Race,” wasn’t about “straw donors” or pay-for-play or any of the other sins being whispered about in the wake of the June 20 FBI raids on Mayor Sheng Thao’s home and the residences of the influential Duong family, owners of California Waste Solutions. It was about something that’s done a lot more to shape power in the city: a political system so reliant on “big money” that it produces unfair outcomes even when everyone is following the rules.

“This reliance on money as the driving force means winners are selected and policy may be shaped by those who can contribute to political campaigns,” the PEC wrote. It described a campaign finance system that dilutes the votes of certain swaths of the city while enhancing the political power of others, and as a result reproduces racist inequities. “This system is self-perpetuating, such that candidates are incentivized to continue to focus on engaging wealthier donors.”

The PEC never used the word, but what the report was describing was corruption: the manipulation of local government to privilege private interests. This sort of corruption is routine, legal, unremarkable. But it is as much a part of the story of how money finds a foothold in Oakland politics as anything the FBI might be looking for.

The Oaklandside spoke with ethics experts, political consultants, and academics about how money warps the political process in Oakland’s politics and what could be done about it. What they described for us wasn’t a healthy political system occasionally threatened by bad actors. What they described was a system that, in a way, is built to be exploited by bad actors. 

“Cities like Oakland, San Francisco … have real stakes around who gets elected. That can directly lead to benefits for people,” Jim Ross, a political consultant who ran Gov. Gavin Newsom’s 2003 campaign for mayor of San Francisco, told The Oaklandside. “That’s the thing about Oakland. A zoning change in the downtown plan could make a developer millions and millions of dollars. Or a contract with a ridesharing company or something like that could have a real impact on a company’s bottom line. Cities like San Francisco, Oakland, San Jose, there are direct incentives for people to subvert the system to their benefit.”

Oakland’s political system has always favored the elite

The standard story of Oakland politics is that it has been a long, slow march out of the corrupt machine politics of yesterday into the light of good government of today. A more cynical version is supported to some extent by the PEC report, not to mention by histories such as Fordham University Professor of Sociology Chris Rhomberg’s account of how the Ku Klux Klan shaped Oakland reform movements in the first half of the 20th century: Good government crusaders never really got rid of political patronage and logrolling; they just changed who benefited.

The ward bosses of the 19th century, who doled out jobs to the immigrants working on the waterfront in exchange for their votes, gave way to the business elites of the 20th century, who ran Oakland through the city manager’s office and through a citywide voting system, to the exclusion of immigrants, Black people, middle class homeowners, and small businesses. Opposition to district elections was supported by the Oakland Tribune, which likened district elections to communism. 

Growing Black political power finally forced a change in 1980, when the city moved to district elections for City Council and school board. Part of the reason was that it would enfranchise the significant Black population in Oakland. Black people made up nearly half of Oakland residents and had outright majorities in parts of the city, but thanks to the at-large system, their candidates were often outvoted in citywide elections. District elections changed the complexion of Oakland politics. By 1992, four of the city’s eight councilmembers were Black, and Latino and Asian representation soon followed.

While district elections brought more diversity to the council, a system that reflects everyone’s interests has yet to emerge. Dr. Robert Stanley Oden, a professor of political science at CSU Sacramento and the author of From Blacks to Brown and Beyond: The Struggle for Progressive Politics in Oakland, California, 1966-2011, points to the rising influence of money: Political donations seem to have a bigger influence on who gets elected. In turn, winning candidates are more responsive to those voters who gave to them, freezing out some of the very people the new system was designed to help. If the elections were no longer at large, the big money was.

To win a campaign, you have to get your name out there

It costs a lot of money to run for office, even on the local level, and every year it costs more and more. Campaigns need cash–to open offices, hire staff, pay for polling, buy TV ads and yard signs. Candidates for Oakland City Council and mayor, and the committees supporting them, often raise hundreds of thousands of dollars, and school board positions also require an increasingly big sum of money to compete for. 

“There’s just no substitute for money in a campaign,” Oden said. “To make your campaign work, it has to be visible.”

Money dictates not only whose campaigns are most visible but also whose candidacies can even get off the ground. 

“The developments we’re seeing at the local level, especially as more and more funds are being pumped into citywide races, are almost on the level of what you’d see in a statewide election in some cases,” said John Pelissero, an ethics expert at Santa Clara University and professor at Loyola University Chicago. “It makes it impossible for some candidates or individuals to even decide to become a candidate because they can’t access the political funds necessary to be competitive.” 

The most viable campaigns often come from people who already have money, or who have a network of potential supporters who have money. Ross, the political consultant, said the electoral system is set up to benefit the candidates who have support from those who are wealthier or more politically engaged. Newsom’s 2003 campaign raised millions of dollars from tens of thousands of contributions, he said. 

“That’s an example of how the system really benefits candidates like him, in that he had a broad base of support from people in San Francisco for whom making a $500 contribution wasn’t out of the realm of possibility.”

Money gives donors access to elected officials

Pelissero said the rising cost of running a local campaign is a troubling development—in some instances, it can reach into the millions of dollars. That opens the door to “pay-for-play” schemes, in which an elected official may want to make policy decisions or promises in exchange for campaign contributions. 

“Money can buy a great deal of influence and really cause a level of unfairness in the playing field,” he told The Oaklandside. “It doesn’t always lead to corruption, but it depends on whether there’s strings attached to funds offered to candidates running for local offices.”

Especially because of independent expenditure committees, which have no limits on how much they can accept or spend, the amount spent has shot up in the last few elections. In Oakland’s 2020 election, nearly $5 million was raised between the candidates’ campaigns and independent expenditure committees, according to a 2022 MapLight analysis. Up for grabs were the at-large and districts 1, 3, 5, and 7 seats on the City Council and school board, and the city attorney’s job. The money raised to support City Council candidates rose from just over $1 million in 2014 to more than $3.5 million in 2020, and in school board races, boosted largely by independent committees, spending grew from about $300,000 in 2014 to more than $1.4 million six years later, according to the MapLight report.  

The experts who spoke to The Oaklandside said corruption and influence peddling isn’t as common as some may believe. But there is no doubt the money has created a tricky ethical terrain for politicians who recognize that fundraising is key to being reelected.

“To honorable office holders, it can be extremely tempting to make a policy decision knowing that it may result in campaign funding. Most candidates and most elected officials in both parties do try to separate between the campaign fundraising and their government action,” said Dan Schnur, a professor at UC Berkeley and the former chair of California’s Fair Political Practices Commission. “Most donors give money to candidates who already agree with them rather than to try to change someone’s mind, but it’s a very fine line to walk.”

In an ideal world, politicians should be most accountable to their voters, said David Shor, the money in politics program manager for Common Cause California, a nonprofit that works to make government more transparent, ethical, and accountable. When it comes to difficult policy decisions or deciding where to trim a budget, officials have a lot of priorities to balance. Money can distort those priorities. 

The Duongs have long counted on the ability of campaign contributions to favorably influence elected officials, according to an email surfaced by an ongoing state and local investigation. “All of the above people are strong and relationship well established in our hands,” Andy Duong wrote in a 2016 email to his father, David, presenting him with a menu of local political candidates worthy of the family’s support in that year’s election. Andy described then-Assemblymember Rob Bonta, for instance, as someone who had always been “very supportive” of the family, an ally who “will deliver whatever we ask for when help needs in the future.” The politicians listed in the email, Andy wrote, are connected to “groups that will be best beneficial for us in the long run.” A spokesperson for Bonta’s campaign denied the now-attorney general is close with the Duongs.

The potential of criminal wrongdoing by the Duongs or someone linked to them has obscured other ongoing investigations into possible campaign finance violations in Oakland. For example, former Mayor Libby Schaaf is currently facing an ethics investigation over allegedly running a political committee that raised money from a major city contractor for a ballot measure. Investigators allege that Schaaf should have disclosed that she was controlling the committee.

“Because money is so important to getting elected, people have the deepest relationships and feel most accountable to the people who gave them major campaign contributions,” Shor said.

‘Money always finds a way’

Campaign finance laws are intended to curb conflicts of interest, prevent corruption, and do away with even the perception that candidates or elected officials are striking up backroom deals with donors. In Oakland, there are limits on how much candidates can accept from individuals and groups like corporations or unions that want to give to their campaign. Independent expenditure committees—those set up by people or groups to try to influence voters’ decisions about candidates or ballot measures—are prohibited from coordinating with candidates. Candidates have to disclose if they’re controlling a committee that’s raising funds to support other candidates or ballot measures. And contractors can’t give money to candidates during a period of time around which they’re negotiating with the city for a contract. 

Oakland’s PEC and its state counterpart, the California Fair Political Practices Commission, are responsible for enforcing campaign finance laws. But those bodies can take months or even years to build their cases. For the PEC, this is partly because it has been so poorly funded and supported by the city, a problem going back many years.

In theory, there are other bulwarks against political corruption. Ross, who has spent 30 years in politics, said the media can be a more effective watchdog in real time. He acknowledged that completely removing money from politics isn’t plausible. 

“You have a system where money will always find a way to influence or get its position known in politics. For some reason, we’ve always felt like we can keep money from doing that,” Ross said. “My system would be, get rid of campaign contribution limits but require 24-hour reporting. Money always finds a way—the key is knowing who’s spending it.”

Some cities like Oakland and San Francisco have also used public financing programs to try to even the electoral playing field. Under these systems, candidates can receive public money if they accept a spending ceiling. In Oakland, the Limited Public Financing Act adopted in 2001 was an effort to make the playing field fairer for candidates from all backgrounds, using public funds to reimburse them for their spending on advertising. 

Democracy Dollars replaces Oakland’s public financing act

Today, we have—on paper—a program known as Democracy Dollars. This was the fruit of the 2020 PEC report on how money is distorting local politics. The report had set out to evaluate Oakland’s existing public financing system and how well it enabled people from a wider range of backgrounds to run for public office. It found that while public financing produced more competitive races and that new candidates who received public funds did better than new candidates who didn’t, the arrangement didn’t do much to mitigate the influence of wealthy donors. As the PEC report, MapLight, and others have noted, the amounts that campaigns have received and spent over the years have only increased. It’s more important than ever for candidates to be tied into circles of people who can make maximum contributions—currently $600 for individuals.

Between 2014 and 2018, half of the contributions to Oakland candidates came from people living outside of Oakland. Of the money that comes from within Oakland, donors are concentrated in Oakland’s wealthiest and whitest zip codes. Less than 1% of Oakland residents overall contribute money to local candidates running for local offices. 

The report called for the city “to live its values and embrace a local democracy built on principles of equity and inclusion” by altering its campaign process “so that candidates from all backgrounds can run for office and realistically win and so that the voices of low-income residents and people of color matter.” 

In response to the report, a coalition of groups promoting civic participation formed to get Measure W on the ballot: the Fair Elections Act. It included reforms to Oakland’s campaign finance laws and the Democracy Dollars initiative. In 2022, 74% of Oakland voters approved Measure W to replace the city’s Limited Public Financing Act. In introducing the Democracy Dollars initiative, Oakland became the first city in California to enact such a policy. 

The program would give four $25 vouchers to Oakland residents to donate to political campaigns. The money to pay for this would come out of the city’s general fund and cost several million each election cycle. It’s intended to enable more people to participate in the electoral process and allow people who have less of an ability to fundraise to be competitive candidates, Shor said. 

Another way of thinking about Democracy Dollars is that the program is a kind of redistribution–not of money, but of the political power that accrues to wealthy donors.  

In Seattle, which in 2015 became the first city in the country to enact this type of public financing option, democracy vouchers changed the way candidates campaigned. Because all voters had money to give, candidates made more of an effort to reach everyone, instead of the ones who were already more engaged in politics, according to the PEC report. Since 2015, local elections in Seattle have seen more diversity among those who donate to local campaigns, with the biggest increases among Black and Hispanic residents, younger residents, and lower-income residents, according to a report by Georgetown University and Stony Brook University. In 2013, 8,200 Seattle residents donated to a campaign. In 2021, more than 48,000 people used vouchers to donate to a campaign. 

“The democracy vouchers encourage candidates to spend time talking with actual residents, rather than asking wealthy donors to write large checks,” said one local candidate, Teresa Mosqueda. Mosqueda won her election “and tipped the Seattle City Council toward a majority of people of color and a supermajority of women,” according to the PEC report.

Dan Schnur, the former chair of the state’s Fair Political Practices Commission, said programs like Democracy Dollars could be more attractive to voters than general public financing programs that match candidate fundraising with public funds. 

“Many voters are wary of initiatives that spend their tax dollars on politics rather than on schools or roads or healthcare. But one of the best ways around that concern is to empower the individual voter to decide where the money should be spent,” he said. 

Oakland’s Democracy Dollars program was supposed to be implemented this year but was contingent on funding from the budget. Given the city’s historic budget deficit, the program did not receive the funds it needed to be in place this year and it’s unlikely it will be fully up and running in 2026. Instead, the City Council restored some of the limited public financing program for the 2024 elections.

The other Measure W reforms, increasing transparency around campaign contributions and creating stricter rules around lobbying, are efforts toward making a democracy that works for everyone, Shor said. 

“The decisions that are made by our elected officials have so many deep impacts in everyday people’s lives. That is true for everything from housing to public safety to health care,” he said. “It’s clear that we need community support and community driving this in order to compete with the interests that are trying to keep things the same way they’ve been for a long time.”