Super PACs bolster Congressional campaigns in San Bernardino and Ventura counties

Jill Vassilakos-Long

Sharon McNary/KPCC

Jill Vassilakos-Long of San Bernardino shows some of the many mailers sent to her home during the primary election in the 31st Congressional District.

Southern California's best-known Congressional race may be the Howard Berman-Brad Sherman clash of Democratic titans who are facing off in the San Fernando Valley.

But if you want to know how the really big Super PAC money has been spent in Southern California this year, look to San Bernardino and Ventura. Races in those two counties represent the two largest buckets of money poured by Super PACs into Congressional races in the state.

Berman-Sherman (at just over $545,000 spent by Super PACs for Berman) came in a distant third.

These races showcase the diverse sources of money flowing into political races via Super PACs. Money is coming in from businesses, from industry coalitions, from a Native American tribe, from individuals, and from the traditional political parties.

This election cycle is the first since the 2010 Citizens United decision, in which the U.S. Supreme Court declared that anyone may spend millions of dollars independently supporting or opposing federal candidates.

California Congressional races have seen more of this independent spending than any other state, already some $7.2 million worth — about 12 percent of what's been spent nationwide. Much of the money has surprisingly gone to two under-the-radar districts in Southern California.

San Bernardino County

In the 31st Congressional District, stretching from Rancho Cucamonga to Redlands, business and industry Super PACs backed their own kind, spending a combined $1.63 million so far.

Super PACs associated with the National Association of Realtors spent $1.4 million to independently support Rep. Gary Miller, R-Diamond Bar. He's on the Congressional Housing Subcommittee and he sponsors bills concerning mortgage laws. He was a developer before he was elected to Congress.

The National Association of Realtors sees Miller as a champion for real estate industry issues, said spokeswoman Sara Wiskerchen. Miller favors keeping the home mortgage income tax deduction, and favors changes in the quasi-governmental lenders Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. He co-sponsored a bill to provide home buyers with tax credits, and he favors increasing the Federal Housing Administration home loan limits, Wiskerchen said.

The Realtors will stand by Miller in the general election, however, Wiskerchen wasn't willing to say how much more they will spend.

State Sen. Bob Dutton, a Republican businessman, was backed by $69,000 spent by a Super PAC called Inland Empire Taxpayers. His father and his father's consulting company gave a combined $25,000. A hospital company and trash hauler gave the rest.

The open primary also featured a Democratic credit union exec, Pete Aguilar, whose campaign was independently supported by a Super PAC of credit unions called Restoring Our Community. It spent $201,000 supporting Aguilar. While most of the money came from credit unions, the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians, which runs a casino in Highland, also put $75,000 into the Super PAC.

One San Bernardino Democrat described what it's like to be a voter living in the Super PAC campaign saturation zone. Jill Vassilakos-Long received 10 Pete Aguilar mailers — some paid for by his campaign, the rest by a Super PAC. Her father, a Republican who lives next door, got even more.

"He says that the minute he gets campaign literature he tosses it in the trash, often without reading it," Vassilakos-Long said.

What bothers her are the phone calls he gets at night from the campaigns. They come from robo-calling machines, and political boiler rooms charged with planting negative messages about a candidate. Vassilakos' wife is in an assisted care home, so he's stressed. But he picks up every phone call.

"That frustrates him," said his daughter. "He's trying to relax, to just let go and the phone keeps ringing," Vassilakos-Long said.

Miller and Dutton, the two Republicans, placed first and second in that race, so only their names will be on the November ballot.

Limits lifted

There used to be limits on what a person or company could give to a candidate for federal office or spend independently in support of a campaign.

But things are different now.

The U.S. Supreme Court decision in a campaign spending case that you're hearing a lot about these days — Citizens United — found those limits to be an unconstitutional restraint on freedom of speech.

So now, people and companies can give unlimited amounts to political action committees called Super PACS — and those Super PACSs can spend it in support of or opposition to candidates for federal offices as long as they don't coordinate with the candidates' own campaigns.

Loyola Law School professor Jessica Levinson studies campaign finance law and suggests three reasons for the spending in California: First, a nonpartisan citizens commission redrew district lines to make elections more competitive. Second, California changed election laws to permit voting for candidates of any party in the primary, with the top two going to the general election — even if they're from the same party.

"Three, as a result of Supreme Court decisions, particularly Citizens United, the handcuffs are really off corporations to spend unlimited funds on independent expenditures," Levinson said.

Ventura County

The second-biggest investment of Super PAC money in a California Congressional race is $1.59 million spent on a single race in Ventura County, where Assemblywoman Julia Brownley, a Democrat, ran in the primary against Republican state Sen. Tony Strickland and an independent, Linda Parks.

In contrast to the San Bernardino County race and the corporated-funded Super PACs, in Ventura County much of the money came from political parties.

"Businesses can have a different and more narrow interest in electing candidates with favorable positions," said Levinson, "while political parties are trying to build the party, build the party ideology and increase their numbers."

In that Ventura County race, the House Majority PAC — a Super PAC for Democrats — spent money on two fronts. It spent nearly $627,000 in support of Democrat Brownley and $177,000 against the independent candidate, Parks.

"This is a race where the House Majority PAC has a lot of interest," said Jay Costa, who analyzes political spending for the MapLight Foundation, a California nonpartisan organization.. "It wouldn't surprise me if they are willing to pour a lot more money into this race."

Brownley advanced to the general election against Republican Tony Strickland, but she'll soon feel the sting of Super PAC money being spent against her. The Republican National Congressional Committee recently put $447,000 into a media buy opposing her.

Business-sponsored candidates

Many Super PACs, particularly those backed by business interest, are looking at playing even bigger roles.

"Part of what Citizens United has done is it's opened up the possibility for more of these corporation or business-sponsored candidates to emerge in American politics," says Will Barndt, a political science professor at UC Riverside. "We know that corporate sponsorship of elections is legal, the question is whether or not it's the way we should be running our elections.

The National Association of Realtors, which bankrolled that independent primary campaign for Miller, recently announced it is moving in that direction. They've started a school to develop their own candidates for local, state and national office.

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