Inside the donor network reshaping California politics
Meet the biggest spending group of mega donors trying to reshape California politics you’ve probably never heard of.
Govern For California’s 18 chapters have so far donated more than $3 million to candidates across California in the 2022 election cycle. One of the top beneficiaries: Assemblymember Robert Rivas, a Salinas Democrat.
Rivas isn’t facing an especially tough reelection campaign, but he has plenty of ways to spend the $116,000 he’s received from 16 Govern For California chapters in the past 14 months.
Since May, he’s been jockeying to become the next speaker of the Assembly, a powerful position that helps shape the Legislature’s policy agenda and influences which bills stand a chance of making it into law. But Rivas is making his move over the objections of the current man in the top job, Anthony Rendon, a Lakewood Democrat who said as recently as Tuesday he has no plans to step down.
Both are now wooing current and incoming members as Rivas tries to take the crown and Rendon tries to hold onto it.
And, as a new CalMatters analysis of Govern For California’s campaign spending reveals, Rivas has friends in high places.
Govern For California is mostly funded by a small group of tech leaders, financiers and other wealthy donors from the Bay Area. Their goal: Counter the sway of special interests, especially labor unions, in the state Capitol.
The organization is the brainchild of Stanford lecturer David Crane. One of its longtime political advisors is Rick Rivas, Robert’s brother.
My colleagues Ben Christopher and Alexei Koseff spoke to eight campaign finance experts for this story. Some said Govern For California’s network of chapters — which are legally independent and can each raise $8,100 per donor per year, but which communicate, coordinate and often donate to the same candidates on the same day — pushes the envelope of California campaign finance law.
- Ann Ravel, former head of the Federal Election Commission and California’s campaign finance agency: “This seems to be contrary to the spirit of the idea of having contribution limitations.”
Ravel said the structure was similar to the way many unions spend their money, but other experts said this represents something brand new in California politics.
- Election and campaign finance lawyer Amber Maltbie: “This is totally different than anything I’ve seen before … it’s a very creative way to maximize electoral strength.”
Though Crane refused to answer Ben and Alexei’s questions for this story, he objected to the premise that what Govern For California is doing is at all novel and said he got the idea from — of all places — labor unions.
- Crane wrote in an email: “For too long, only special interests organized political activity in Sacramento. The only thing that’s new is that, in 2011, someone started organizing for the general interest.”
Crane, Rick Rivas and Robert Rivas all declined to answer questions about whether they were using the Govern For California network to advance Robert Rivas’ leadership ambitions in the Legislature. A spokesperson for Rendon also declined to comment. Crane and several donors to Govern For California are also financial supporters of CalMatters, which retains full authority over editorial content and makes news judgments independent of donor support.
The coronavirus bottom line: As of Monday, California had 9,983,370 confirmed cases (+0.6% from previous day) and 92,889 deaths (+0.1% from previous day), according to state data now updated just twice a week on Tuesdays and Fridays. CalMatters is also tracking coronavirus hospitalizations by county.
California has administered 78,762,612 vaccine doses, and 71.7% of eligible Californians are fully vaccinated.
Other Stories You Should Know
1 Newsom turns campaign attention to California
Gov. Gavin Newsom, after airing campaign ads in Florida and Texas, has now turned his attention to the state where he’s actually running for reelection. The governor’s reelection campaign on Wednesday published an ad in Variety that appears to deliver an ultimatum of sorts to the Hollywood film industry, which has begun shooting more productions in states such as Georgia and Oklahoma to take advantage of their tax credits. “Over the past several years, the legislatures of states like Georgia and Oklahoma have waged a cruel assault on essential rights,” the ad reads. “Now, in the wake of the Supreme Court’s abhorrent decision overturning Roe v. Wade, those same states are quickly moving to strip reproductive freedom. … Today more than ever, you have a responsibility to take stock of your values — and those of your employees — when doing business in those states.”
Newsom added in a tweet, “We’re extending tax credits for those that come home to the Golden State. Choose freedom. Choose CA.” The governor simultaneously announced his support — first shared with Variety — for legislation that would invest $1.65 billion in California’s film and television tax credit program by extending it for another five years, through 2030. Although Newsom’s office said the credits have been shown to generate $24 in economic activity for every $1 invested, policy analysts say there’s conflicting evidence the program pays for itself, as CalMatters has reported.
The governor has apparently been championing other legislative efforts before the session ends next month: He met with the state Assembly and Senate’s Democratic caucuses on Tuesday to gin up enthusiasm for more ambitious environmental goals, including rules governing how close oil wells can be to sensitive areas such as schools and homes, according to Politico. The news comes a little more than a week after he directed lawmakers and state agencies to make California’s climate plans even more aggressive. (Newsom has faced intense criticism from environmental justice advocates in recent months for pushing an energy plan they said capitulated to fossil fuels, endorsing a possible extension of California’s last nuclear power plant and opposing a ballot measure to raise taxes on millionaires for a variety of climate programs.)
- In other legislative news: The state Senate on Wednesday announced the formation of a bipartisan Select Committee on Monkeypox, which will be led by Democratic state Sen. Scott Wiener of San Francisco. The committee is set to meet Aug. 9 with state and local health officials and experts to discuss California’s short- and medium-term response to the virus.
2 State, counties wrangle over clean energy
While Newsom pushes lawmakers to support more ambitious climate action, a controversial energy plan that he pressured them to approve last month has been met with frustration and confusion from some rural counties and developers. The law aims to accelerate construction of new clean energy facilities by allowing developers to bypass local permitting processes and instead seek approval from the state. But, as CalMatters’ Julie Cart reports, Kings County is among those that have bristled at the governor’s apparent assumption that small, rural counties are opposed to clean energy. Kings County has been developing solar projects for more than a dozen years, some of which power Disneyland. Another mega solar power project under construction there will supply Stanford University and BART, the Bay Area’s public transportation network.
- Kings County Supervisor Joe Neves: “We are not unsophisticated, we know what we are doing. We planned for this. We can see the future.”
- Alex Jackson, director of California state affairs for American Clean Power, an association of renewable energy companies: “What is (Newsom’s) proposal solving for? In general we work really well with local government. We have invested a lot in those relationships. We prefer to work with them rather than strong-arm them. Overall we don’t see this as unlocking the path to accelerating clean energy.”
3 The gender politics of housing
The burden of California’s housing affordability crisis falls most squarely on the shoulders of women, particularly women of color, single mothers and the elderly, according to a report released this morning by the Gender Equity Policy Institute. The report was developed at the request of Democratic Assemblymember Buffy Wicks of Oakland, leader of the Assembly Committee on Housing and Community Development and author of a contentious affordable housing bill that has divided labor groups.
- Wicks: “This report is a rallying cry for action. Unless lawmakers act on reforms now to unlock a wave of new affordable housing construction and access, we now know in shocking detail which women will be left behind.”
- According to the report, “Women are at greater risk of housing insecurity … for three primary reasons. One, women enter the housing market with lower incomes and less accumulated wealth. Two, women are more likely than men to be heading a household or family on only one income. Three, gender bias and discrimination in housing and in the broader society place additional obstacles in the way of women’s efforts to secure safe, affordable and convenient housing.”
Here’s a look at some key takeaways:
- Statewide, 49% of women are rent-burdened — meaning they spend more than one-third of their income on housing — compared to 42% of men.
- 59% of Black women are rent-burdened, compared to 52% of Latina women, 49% of both white and Native American women and 45% of Asian American and Pacific Islander women.
- 73% of California’s more than 600,000 head-of-household single mothers are rent-burdened, compared to 56% of approximately 150,000 head-of-household single fathers.
- Women make up 55% of Californians 65 and older, and many of them live alone or below the poverty line.
- Women accounted for about 41% of California’s estimated homeless population in 2021. One in five of them reported experiencing domestic violence.
CalMatters columnist Dan Walters: California taxpayers will subsidize the development of a new stadium for the Oakland A’s baseball team.
Lawmakers should help Californians access legal aid: There is still time for judiciary committee chairs Assemblymember Mark Stone and state Sen. Tom Umberg to fix a troubling bill that would muzzle innovation in the delivery of legal services, argue David Freeman Engstrom and Lucy Buford Ricca, members of the California State Bar Association’s Closing the Justice Gap Working Group.
Other things worth your time
San Francisco DA Brooke Jenkins to revoke plea deals in drug cases. // San Francisco Chronicle
UC Berkeley halts construction at People’s Park due to protest, occupation. // Berkeleyside
As state shelter program shutters, formerly unhoused residents in Oakland brace for next steps. // KQED
Sacramento’s homeless shelter measure could be pulled from November ballot. // Sacramento Bee
The price gap between renting and owning a Bay Area home reaches new high. // San Francisco Chronicle
Los Gatos’ business license tax increase could bring in more than $1 million. // Mercury News
To fight wage theft, San Diego adopts stricter transparency rules for city contractors. // San Diego Union-Tribune
Rare Bay Area Legionnaires’ outbreak leaves 1 dead, 12 sick. // SFGATE
San Diego County follows state’s lead, declares local monkeypox state of emergency. // San Diego Union-Tribune
A former California doctor’s campaign against reporters. // Los Angeles Times
A kidnapping suspect brought a loaded gun to jail. // San Francisco Standard
Stockton Unified facilities director told staffers he’s under investigation by FBI, state auditor. // Stockton Record
A Santa Ana ‘Detective of the Year’ is now charged in child sex sting. // Orange County Register
Cal continued to give Teri McKeever pay raises despite bullying complaints. // Mercury News
Paul Pelosi pleads not guilty to DUI misdemeanor charges. // Associated Press
Californians are more likely now to leave the state for college. Here’s where they’re going. // Sacramento Bee
Hundreds of e-bikes abandoned in Richmond after company shutters operations. // Mercury News
Great white sharks are thriving in Monterey Bay, study shows. // Los Angeles Times
Some Southern California cities to ban outdoor watering for two weeks. // Orange County Register
‘Scarred, but not moving’: A year after the Dixie Fire, a town strives to recover. // Sacramento Bee
Wind-whipped fire leaves Northern California hamlet in ashes. // Associated Press
Fire and rain: As McKinney blaze rages, floods hit Northern California. // Washington Post
Two of California’s wolf packs produce litters. // Los Angeles Times
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