If a politician treated you to a nice lunch, would you vote for him?
In the most expensive campaign for supervisor in Santa Cruz County history, Bruce McPherson spent $203,781 and got 12,258 votes. That works out to $16.62 per vote.
That’s enough to pay for the Asian salad with salmon at Malone’s, or the lunch buffet and a drink at Don Quixote’s, plus tip.
Of course, no politician is going to trade you lunch for a vote. I’m just making a point of how expensive local politics has become.
“It’s unfortunate that so much money had to be spent,” said Eric Hammer, who lost to McPherson by 145 votes in the race for the 5th District seat.
His campaign spent $98,253 and ended up in the red.
"A lot of good people are held back from running for office because it costs so much,” he said. “There should be some spending limits on elections, so that you have a more level playing field.”
Longtime Santa Cruz County legislator John Laird agreed.
“There is too much money in politics,” he said. “The impact of Citizens United urgently needs to be addressed.”
Citizens United is the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 2010 that said the 1st Amendment prohibits government from restricting political contributions by corporations and unions.
“Spending endless, undisclosed sums, like Citizens United allows, takes the vital human factor out of voters’ decision-making,” said Laird, who serves as secretary for California’s Natural Resources Agency.
Scotts Valley City Councilman Jim Reed said there’s another Supreme Court case that is also relevant — the 1976 Buckley v. Valeo ruling that allows candidates to give unlimited amounts to their own campaigns.
“Any billionaire can run for office and use his billions to try to influence the election,” Reed said. “As long as the wealthy can self-finance, you have the potential for the system to be drastically unfair. Then the question is: How do you level the playing field for the little guy? You do it by public financing of campaigns, or allowing him to raise money from a lot of people.”
That’s how McPherson won. When you work for decades as a state senator, assemblyman, secretary of state and a local reporter and editor, you get to know a lot of people.
“Eric might have felt like he was rolling a stone uphill, competing against a guy like Bruce, who has a huge number of people who believe in him because he has such a strong record of service,” Reed said.
The McPherson campaign said each donation came from people who either knew the candidate or talked to him.
“We scheduled time every day for Bruce to make phone calls and explain why he was running, then ask for financial support,” said McPherson campaign chief Steve Reed (no relation to Jim Reed). “He raised money through one-on-one phone calls. People would come away from those encounters knowing what he hoped to accomplish.”
McPherson raised a lot of money, and I agree that money has too much influence in politics. But McPherson addressed the “vital human factor” that Laird referred to, talking to voters one on one.
Councilman Reed said that’s the right way to win an election.
“If you run against someone who has more contacts,” he said, “then you’re going to get outspent.”
- Mark Rosenberg is an investment consultant for Financial West Group in Scotts Valley, a member of FINRA and SIPC. He can be reached at 831-439-9910 or firstname.lastname@example.org.