Amid the torrent of campaign ads churning through the postal system this season, the slate mailer stands out as a perennial — and many say unseemly — California political tradition that dates back to at least the 1950s.

Though new restrictions may be on the way.

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You’ve seen these before: A group, often with an inoffensive or non-descript name, places a phalanx of candidates and proposition positions on the same glossy postcard and implores voters to support the “slate.” 

The catch: While some of these mailers reflect the earnest political values of the organizations that put them together, many are pay-to-play money-makers that blur the line between endorsement, paid advertisement and extortion.

  • In San Francisco, a “Feel the Bern, Progressive Voter Guide” is urging voters to support Proposition 22, prompting the mailer’s namesake, Sen. Bernie Sanders to remind his followers on Twitter that he is absolutely not “feeling” Prop. 22 — in fact, he actively opposes the Uber and Lyft-backed measure. 
  • The “Committee to Protect the Political Rights of Minorities,” a committee run by California NAACP leader Alice Huffman, received payments to tell voters to oppose rent control, a property tax increase and the end of cash bail.
  • After receiving a $300,000 payment from the “No on 20” campaign, the COPS Voter Guide — which is not managed by a police organization, but by political consultant Kelley Moran — encourages voters to oppose that proposition. That’s much to the chagrin of the law enforcement groups supporting it.
  • A group calling itself the “Voter Education Coalition” endorsed San Diego Democrat Lorena Gonzalez for her Assembly seat, along with a “Yes” vote on Prop. 22. Careful observers of California politics will note that Gonzalez is the author of state law that Prop. 22 would punch a hole in. 

There’s nothing illegal about selling endorsement space on a postcard. California law requires that mailers include a “notice to voters,” specifying that the mailer group is “NOT AN OFFICIAL POLITICAL PARTY” (yes, in all caps). 

Another required disclosure: Candidates and causes that paid for their mailer spot must be listed with an asterisk. 

What isn’t required: revealing the funders behind the mailer “committee.”

Gonzalez wants to change that. 

She didn’t pay to appear on the Voter Education Coalition endorsement — although an ideologically mixed bag of San Diego politicians did, including Democratic mayoral candidate Barbara Bry, city attorney candidate Cory Briggs, and San Diego County Board of Supervisors contenders state Sen. Ben Hueso (a Democrat) and Poway Mayor Steve Vaus (a Republican). 

Over the last few months, the “coalition” has also received payments from property manager Richard Snyder earmarked in support of Bry, Dale Briggs in support of his son, and a company called La Playa LLC supporting both Hueso and Vaus.

According to a sparse campaign finance record filed with the state, the organization is managed by a Barrett Gonzalez in San Diego. Though no address or business was provided, a man by that name works for the San Diego Group, a political consulting firm. 

Reached by phone, Gonzalez at the San Diego Group denied that he was the Barrett Gonzalez of San Diego involved with the slate mailer. “Must be a different one,” he said. John Wainio, the president of the San Diego Group, did not respond to an email inquiry.

Assemblymember Gonzalez said she was probably included in the mailer because she is “a well known progressive Democrat” whose presence on the mailer gives the rest of the endorsements “credibility.” 

When the Legislature convenes in December, Gonzalez said she wants to introduce a bill that would require each slate mailer endorsement to come with a label describing who paid for it. She would also like to force slate mailer “committees” to list how many people belong to their organization.

“You have ‘Senior Citizens for a Clean Environment’ — I’m just making this up — and you look it up and it’s like, ‘that’s not an organization,’” she said. “If someone just created a group by which they’re trying to sell endorsements, we should know these things.”

Via the Post It, CalMatters political reporter Ben Christopher shares frequent updates from the (socially distanced) 2020 campaign trail.

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Ben covers housing policy and previously covered California politics and elections. Prior to these roles at CalMatters, he was a contributing writer for CalMatters reporting on the state's economy and...