California Election 2018: Updates and Analysis
A Florida-based company accused of botching the clean-up after last year’s devastating fires in Santa Rosa has jumped into California politics, writing big checks to Gavin Newsom’s gubernatorial campaign and the California Democratic Party.
AshBritt, which contracted with the federal government to clean up the disaster, and another company owned by AshBritt chairman Randal Perkins together donated $250,000 to the state Democratic Party on Oct. 4, campaign filings show. Two weeks earlier, AshBritt CEO Brittany Perkins donated $29,200 to Newsom’s campaign, the maximum allowed.
The donations come as Santa Rosa homeowners complain their fire-ravaged properties were further damaged by federal contractors, and as California emergency officials blast the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for lax oversight, leading to “negligent and potentially fraudulent acts” by the contracted companies.
An AshBritt spokesman said the company followed all laws and regulations during the clean-up and that criticism from state leaders has nothing to do with its foray into California politics.
“We contribute throughout the country in areas where we work,” said Gerardo Castillo.
“Our donations are made as good corporate citizens by our employees and our owners, and there is no connection with any political issues.”
But recent events indicate some reasons to anticipate political problems.
In August, Mark Ghilarducci, director of the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services, wrote a letter to the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers saying that contractors hired to remove debris from burned areas in Santa Rosa excavated so much extra material that they damaged driveways, septic systems, wells and other features on hundreds of properties.
Insufficient oversight allowed contractors to “take far more soil than was necessary,” Ghilarducci wrote.
“Given these subcontractors were paid per ton of soil removed, it is probable this over-excavation was an intentional effort to capitalize on this tragedy by defrauding the government.”
The letter does not name specific companies, but Castillo said AshBritt played a lead role in removing debris after the fire and a KQED investigation says it was one of three prime contractors awarded the $1.3 billion clean-up job by the Army Corps of Engineers. The KQED investigation also says the state licensing board fined AshBritt and five subcontractors for contracting without a license. One subcontractor was found to have violated several safety laws, leading to the death of a worker. Castillo said the investigation of the death did not lead to any negative findings about AshBritt, and that the contract to be paid by the ton for hauling debris was structured to promote efficiency.
Formed in 1992, AshBritt is now a major player in the business of disaster recovery. It has worked on more than 200 disaster sites, including the clean-up from Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy. The New Jersey Star Ledger described AshBritt as a “politically connected” firm that has made billions from government contracts. Its work following Hurricane Irma in Florida last year prompted that state’s attorney general to open an investigation into potential price-gouging, which a spokesman said remains ongoing.
The Newsom campaign and the Democratic Party did not return calls seeking comment for this article.
California Democrats aren’t the only ones benefiting from AshBritt’s political spending this year. The company also donated $500,000 to a pro-Trump super-PAC in April. That led to a complaint by the Campaign Legal Center, alleging that federal contractors are prohibited from making federal campaign contributions and that the donation was made the day after AshBritt received a payment of almost the same amount from a Department of Defense contract.
AshBritt founder and chairman Randy Perkins told Roll Call it was just a paperwork error—the donation was from him personally, not his company, which is allowed under federal law.
AshBritt’s political activity in California has largely been dormant for the last decade. Between 2005 and 2008 the company and its founder gave more than $300,000 to Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, one of his ballot measures and state and local GOP groups.
In any campaign, big money players get the most attention. But Democrats running in California’s seven most competitive congressional districts are vastly outraising Republicans in small-dollar donations, according to a review of campaign money compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics.
It’s a display of voter enthusiasm that can pay long-term dividends for beneficiaries.
Overall, Democratic candidates running in the seven GOP-held seats where Hillary Clinton beat Donald Trump in 2016 have raised $40 million to the Republicans’ $18.7 million. That’s a stunning turn of fortune from 2016 when Republicans running in those seats raised $17.7 million to the Democrats’ $5.7 million.
Democrats running in those seven districts raised $6.4 million in donations of less than $200, almost 10 times the $671,000 raised by Republicans through the first three quarters of 2018, campaign finance reports show.
“There has never been anything like this,” said Democratic strategist Bill Burton, who is involved in several congressional races in California. “Regular grassroots Americans are saying they want change in dozens of races across the country.”
- Altogether, Republican Congressman Jeff Denham of Turlock raised $4.1 million to Democratic challenger Josh Harder’s $6 million.
- Only 1.6 percent of Denham’s money is in small-dollar donations, while nearly 18 percent of Harder’s came in small amounts.
- Republican Congressman Steve Knight of Palmdale raised $2.1 million, but less than 2 percent has come in small increments.
- Knight’s Democratic challenger Katie Hill raised $6.26 million, including 21 percent in increments of less than $200.
Republicans have used outside spending funded by wealthy donors as an equalizer, although Democratic groups and funders including the League of Conservation Voters and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg are spending heavily to flip seats.
Donors who give less than $200 aren’t identified by name in federal disclosures, and may not live in the candidates’ district. But candidates know who they are, collect their email addresses and regularly send them solicitations.
Not all donors can afford to give the maximum $2,700 under federal law. But candidates can return to small-dollar donors multiple times to help fuel their campaign efforts, ranging from television ads to get-out-the-vote drives. They also know that people who give money vote and volunteer, if not for them then for candidates in their home districts.
The phenomenon extends to districts where no Democratic expert thinks Democratic challengers have any prayer of winning.
Democrat Audrey Denney has outraised Republican Congressman Doug LaMalfa of Richvale in a deep red district in far Northern California, $888,000 to LaMalfa’s $810,000. Almost 40 percent of Denney’s money, $350,000, has come in small increments, compared with 2.8 percent of LaMalfa’s money.
There are Republican exceptions, much of it Trump-related:
- Little known Republican Omar Navarro raised $546,000 in small sums in his long-shot challenge against Democratic Congresswoman Maxine Waters of Los Angeles. She and Trump regularly tangle.
- Tulare County Congressman Devin Nunes has used his close alliance with Trump to raise his profile nationally, and to raise money—$10.5 million for this election, almost half of it in small-dollar donations. Challenger Andrew Janz has raised 54 percent of his $7.2 million from small donors in the first half of the year.
- Republican Congressman Tom McClintock of Elk Grove raised 24 percent of his $1.5 million from small donors. McClintock, whose tenure in office dates to 1982, has cultivated his list of GOP regulars for decades.
Overall, however, challenger Jessica Morse has outraised McClintock, pulling in $2.8 million.
If you shop like a lot of us, you narrow your choices to two options and then match up their features to determine the best fit for you. Consumer Reports has perfected this approach when you’re torn between, say, a Honda versus a Toyota.
Now CALmatters gives you the opportunity to size up finalists for every statewide office in the California 2018 election—from governor to attorney general to state schools superintendent and more—with that kind of comparison tool. Select the issues that matter most and see how the candidates agree and differ. It’s just one of the unique features you’ll find on our 2018 voter guide.
What’s the sound of one man debating? California voters got an idea today at the first and only scheduled candidate forum in the 2018 U.S. Senate race.
State Sen. Kevin de León may have debated Sen. Dianne Feinstein at the Public Policy Institute of California’s downtown San Francisco office this afternoon, but Feinstein wasn’t interested in debating him.
De León, the former president pro tempore of the state senate who is nonetheless not well known by many voters, did his best to distinguish himself from California’s long-time sitting senator, criticizing her as a representative of a “status quo” that “keeps resisting the resistance.”
“I wish Democrats in Washington would fight like hell for Dreamers just the way that Donald J. Trump and the Republicans fight like hell for their stupid wall,” he told the institute’s president, Mark Baldassare, in a not so veiled dig at his opponent across the stage. “That lack of courage, always backpedaling every single time, is not the type of leadership that we need today.”
Feinstein largely focused on her record as a four-plus term senator for California, speaking about her policy proposals, while largely declining to engage her opponent. When she did acknowledge de León, it was generally to agree with him.
The divergent approaches to the “conversation,” as it was billed, were in part a result of the format. Rather than the response/counter-response structure of more traditional campaign debates, this was a mediated discussion between the two candidates. This made for a fairly staid and largely amicable hour of policy discussion. That certainly favors Feinstein, who leads in the polls and name recognition. De León, meanwhile, was hoping to change the nature of the race by tarnishing Feinstein’s brand and making a splash with new voters.
On policy matters, the two candidates disagreed on relatively little.
They shared the view, for example, that sexual assault allegations against Justice Brett Kavanaugh should be revisited. They agreed that children should no longer be separated at the border and that immigration reform is long overdue. They both oppose the twin Delta tunnels water project and support more gun control.
When de León tried to make a point that Democrats in Washington (including Feinstein) let voters down by failing to renew the federal ban on so-called assault weapons when they controlled Congress in 2009, the senior senator did not take the bait.
“I don’t think we disagree on this,” she said. “I think we agree.”
“We can move on then, unless…?” said Baldassare, looking at Feinstein. She said nothing and they moved on.
Likewise, when de León laid the blame for the Iraq War on Feinstein, who voted to authorize the invasion, or called out her support for the Homeland Security Act, which authorized Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), Feinstein let the comments slide.
That the policy preferences of the two candidates overlap so much is hardly surprising. They’re both Democrats. Under California’s “top two” electoral system, the first and second place winners in the primary move onto the general election, regardless of party. On June 5th, Feinstein won 44 percent of the vote, while de León won 12 percent. The remainder was split across 30 other candidates.
But the two candidates did part ways on two issues: health care reform and the impeachment of President Trump.
Feinstein said that she supports a public option health insurance program for individuals to buy into, reducing the age for Medicare eligibility, allowing Medicare to negotiate for lower prescription drug prices, and increasing health insurance subsidies under the Affordable Care Act.
De León supports expanding Medicare to everyone, brushing off criticisms that such a program is unaffordable.
“Washington always seems to find the money for its priorities: two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan…tax cuts for the rich,” he said.
In the closest thing to a direct exchange, Feinstein argued that Democratic numbers in the Senate precluded the possibility of removing the president from office.
“What changes things are elections,” she said. But de León was not convinced by the arithmetic.
“We need Democrats in Washington D.C. to have the courage of their convictions…regardless of what the makeup is of the House as well as the U.S. Senate,” he said toward the end of the event.
One area in which de León held his fire was the confirmation hearings of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. Though he had been sharply critical of Feinstein’s handling of the sexual assault allegations by Palo Alto psychology professor Christine Blasey Ford during the hearings, he dropped that tactic.
Today’s low-profile sit down echoes last week’s gubernatorial debate, when Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom squared off with his Republican opponent John Cox in a mid-morning radio appearance. That too was the one and only candidate forum scheduled during the general election, held at a definitively non-prime time hour, eliciting complaints from the underdog. Cox has clamored for additional, higher profile debates. Likewise, de León has questioned whether the PPIC event even meets the definition.
“Hardworking Californians, people who work two, three jobs can’t take off in the middle of the day to turn on a livestream and watch this conversation,” a campaign spokesman said last week.
De León faces long odds in toppling Feinstein. Even so, that the event took place at all suggests that this race represents an unusually strong challenge to California’s senior U.S. senator. Feinstein hasn’t gone head-to-head with an electoral opponent—whether in debate or mere “conversation”—since 2000. De León was sure to remind the audience of that point.
“I think the last time Senator Feinstein had an opponent on the same stage was about 18 years ago,” he said, turning to his opponent. “So this is historic and I want to thank you very much for this opportunity to be here with you today.”