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Incumbents would face new restrictions on mass mailers under bill awaiting Brown's signature

Republican Orange County Supervisor Andrew Do squeaked out re-election over Democratic challenger Michele Martinez in 2016. Some critics say his use of large quantities of taxpayer-funded mailers prior to the election may have helped him win. Erika Aguilar/KPCC

A bill aimed at cracking down on the use of taxpayer-funded mailers to promote political candidates has breezed through the California legislature and is awaiting action by Gov. Jerry Brown.

Senate Bill 45 would prohibit public offices from mass mailing newsletters, fliers or other items featuring a candidate within 60 days of an election in which that candidate appears on the ballot.

“There’s been some abuse by some elected officials who use public funds to mail what seems to be and look like political mailers,” said Senator Tony Mendoza, who sponsored the bill. 

Mendoza’s district covers southeast L.A. and a part of Orange County. 

He said the bill was prompted, in part, by Orange County Supervisor Andrew Do’s controversial use of mass mailers when he was up for re-election last year. 

Orange County spent some $250,000 in 2016 on fliers advertising community events and town hall meetings sponsored by Do. His name was printed prominently and multiple times on some of the fliers. 

The California Fair Political Practices Commission is investigating several complaints about the mailers. Do has maintained they were perfectly legal. His office did not respond to multiple requests for comment on Thursday. 

He won the 2016 general election by 0.4 percentage points, 648 votes, over Santa Ana City Councilwoman Michele Martinez.  

Current regulations prohibit taxpayer-funded mass mailers, defined by the FPPC as “more than 200 substantially similar items sent in a calendar month" that feature an elected official. But there are exceptions, including for meeting and event announcements as long as the official’s photo and signature are not included and the official’s name is only mentioned once. 

Mendoza said his legislation would "close the loophole and clarify what an elected official can do with regards to mass mailings.”

Political scientist and former LA Community College District Trustee Mona Field praised Mendoza’s bill, saying it would be a step toward leveling the playing field between incumbents and challengers. 

Field said constituents often don’t distinguish between campaign flyers and official mailers. “And unfortunately some voters kind of vote based on the preponderance of campaign junk mail that comes through their mailbox,” she said.

Gov. Jerry Brown has until October 15 to sign or veto the bill. It passed the state Assembly and Senate in recent weeks with no votes against it.