Photo by Melati Citrawireja
Old City Hall, where the Berkeley City Council meets. Photo: Melati Citrawireja

A new analysis of campaign finances from past Berkeley elections has found that more than half the contributions to sitting council members came from less than 1% of Berkeley households, and that one-third of the contributions came from outside the city.

The analysis was undertaken by the Berkeley Fair Elections Coalition, the group behind public financing Measure X1, which is on the Nov. 8 ballot. The measure would require the city to set aside about $500,000 from the General Fund each year (.16%), with a cap on the public financing fund of $2 million. Taxes would not increase.

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According to the analysis, seven of the last eight council district races — in 2012 and 2014 — as well as the mayor’s race were won by the candidate who raised the most money. (The exception was District 7 incumbent Kriss Worthington in 2014, who raised about $10,000 less than his challenger but pulled out the win by a margin of less than 200 votes.)

The coalition looked at fundraising in past elections going back to 1997. It found that no council district incumbent has lost a race since 1997, though Mayor Tom Bates managed to knock out incumbent Shirley Dean in 2002, the year he entered the fray.

The coalition found that more than half the campaign contributions made in 2012 and 2014 to the mayor and sitting council members came from fewer than 350 households, which is less than 1% of Berkeley.

One-third of all money raised for those candidates, nearly $100,000, came from outside Berkeley, though most of it was from the Bay Area and Sacramento.

Council members got 60% of their contributions from donors who gave the maximum amount, or $250. Bates got 70% of his contributions from donors giving the maximum.

The year Bates first ran for mayor, 2002, was one of the most expensive fundraising years studied, according to the coalition, with mayoral candidates raising nearly $424,000. Winning mayoral candidates since 2002 have raised nearly $134,000 on average.

In the past 10 years, winning council district candidates in “competitive” races have raised more than $30,000 on average.

The coalition defines competitive races as those where a challenger is able to raise at least 50% as much as the winner. According to the analysis, 58% of the races in Berkeley have not been competitive: Either the candidate has run unopposed or competitors raised much less than the winner.

The group declined to make its raw data available, but shared highlights of its findings with Berkeleyside. Alec Saslow, a member of the Berkeley Fair Elections Coalition, said that’s because the group wanted to focus on systemic issues and not individual candidates. (Candidates named above were identified by Berkeleyside and were not listed by name in the original analysis.)

Saslow said the analysis shows that, even in Berkeley, “the system is set up to benefit candidates who have personal wealth or access to wealth.”

Laura Curlin, a coalition member who was involved in the analysis, said the Berkeley numbers reflect many of the same campaign finance trends found in other cities and at the federal level.

“In general, political participation through campaign contributions is low, less than 1%,” she said. “It’s a very stark number. But, in general, only the wealthy can afford to contribute large amounts to politics.”

The reason that’s a problem, advocates say, is that politicians — as a result — spend much more time with wealthy donors, who have more influence on their thinking and priorities.

Saslow pointed to a recent analysis by the DC-based Center for Responsive Politics that found that 12% of all the money in the political system for the November 2016 election came from just 100 “donor families.”

Said Saslow: “The idea that because it’s local or because it’s Berkeley that these problems don’t exist is not born out by the data. It’s pretty clear that the problems exist on a local level too.”

Curlin said the group tried to look at whether particular industries were having undue influence in the local races, but were unable to come up with a rigorous enough approach to share their findings with confidence.

She noted, in relation to the “outside” money coming into Berkeley politics, most of it is coming from the Bay Area — including San Francisco, Oakland and Emeryville — as well as Sacramento.

Saslow said the hope, with public financing, is that it will open up the field to more candidates, and also mean that candidates will spend more time speaking with a broader cross-section of the community.

“It creates structures where more people have access and where more people are part of the process,” he said.

Saslow and Curlin said, as far as they know, their analysis is the first of its kind to look in this way at campaign financing for Berkeley candidates over the years.

A few other cities, including New York City, and some states have already adopted public financing systems. Washington state and Howard County, Maryland, have public financing measures on the ballot this year.

Under Measure X1, candidates who refuse money from special-interest PACs and only accept contributions of $50 or less will receive matching funds from the city at a ratio of $6 to $1: up to $120,000 for mayoral candidates and $40,000 for council district hopefuls.

The Berkeley Fair Elections Coalition formed about two years ago to try to come up with a way to address “Berkeley’s money and politics problems,” organizers say. The group worked with the Berkeley City Council to create Measure X1 and place it on the ballot this year.

The coalition is led by Sacramento-based California Common Cause and includes all the groups who have endorsed Measure X1, such as the Sierra Club SF Bay Chapter, the Berkeley Tenants Union and NAACP Berkeley.

Berkeley 2016 election hub: What you need to know (10.11.16)
As election nears, contributions and complaints mount (10.26.16)
12 measures will shape city’s infrastructure, education budget, campaign financing, more (10.19.16)
Real estate interests spend $92K to help elect Berkeley candidates (10.17.16)
Real-estate interests spend big to defeat rental tax spike (10.12.16)
With 28 days to the election, fundraising gap between mayoral candidates widens (10.11.16)
2 open Berkeley City Council races draw significant cash (08.09.16)
The mayor’s race is off and running: Where do campaign coffers stand? (08.04.16)
They’re off: Candidates file campaign finance statements (02.03.16)

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Emilie Raguso (former senior editor, news) joined Berkeleyside in 2012 and covered politics, public safety and development until her departure in 2022. In 2017, Emilie was named Journalist of the Year...