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Council District 15: How uncoordinated are the candidates?

January 4, 2012 |  8:06 am

Buscaino versus Furutani; LAPD officers versus DWP workers
The Los Angeles Police Protective League put big bucks behind Joe Buscaino in the Nov. 8 City Council primary, but in the runoff it's got company: The union leaders of rank-and-file Department of Water and Power employees are behind an organization that has spent $44,987 on mailers and polling to elect Buscaino, according to numbers filed with the Los Angeles City Ethics Commission. The grass-roots candidate, the neighborhood cop, is now the DWP union's guy.

Say it ain't so, Joe!

By rights, though, Joe should be completely unable to say whether it's so. A donor to a City Council candidate may give only $500 per election, but the league and DWP union payments all come in the form of independent expenditures. There is no limit on IEs, as they are known, as long as the spending isn't coordinated with the candidate's campaign.

That means the candidate and his representatives are not supposed to be able to incorporate the IE into their own fundraising and spending decision-making. For example, the candidate is not allowed to contact the independent group and say, "You know, I've got the door-to-door thing nailed down, but I don't want to spend unnecessary time on the phone raising money for mailers. So it would really help me out if you guys took care of the mail campaign for me." That's coordination. It nullifies the "independent" part of the independent expenditure. Except for the first $500 worth, it would be illegal.

So how do observers tell if there is coordination? Let's be honest: They don't. There's no way to know whether a union guy working on an IE says, over a beer with a guy from the candidate's campaign, "If I were you, I'd spend money on cable ads because just between you and me, you can assume that the mail will be taken care of." There is no public record of the Ethics Commission charging a candidate, committee or independent expenditure group with improperly coordinating.

The arrangement keeps individual campaign donation limits in place, so that supposedly no single contributor can buy a candidate; but it still allows wealthy groups and individuals to exercise their 1st Amendment rights to speak out, with money, in support of the candidate they like. Then, if they later demand favors in return for their largesse, an elected official would in theory still be able to say, "I never knew you."

But that doesn't really mean the independent group gets nothing for its money but the satisfaction of electing a good person.

The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Local 18 -– the DWP union -– no doubt saw the Police Protective League's independent expenditure in the first round. IBEW leaders got into the game with the Local 18 Water and Power Defense League Committee, which in turn is providing the bulk of funding to Working Californians to Support Buscaino for City Council 2012. Working Californians also includes funding from United Firefighters of Los Angeles City.

The DWP union leaders and the firefighters union went to bat for the firefighters' former president, Pat McOsker, in the primary. He came in fourth.

DWP workers may have worried that if elected, Buscaino would reserve all his council clout to satisfy the league's demands for better police pay at budget and union contract time, leaving little left for DWP raises. With the IE, the electrical workers and firefighters could say (without actually saying it), "Hey, Joe. Remember that you're up for reelection in only 18 months. Remember what we did for you, and think about what we could do for you again. Or what we could instead do for an opponent, if you don't see the world our way."

Of course, the cops' union (and a business group that's spent $16,098.34 on phone-banking, a mailer and a print ad to elect Buscaino) might be saying the same kind of thing. For the runoff, the league has put in another $89,118 -– for cable ads and a mailer -– to help elect Buscaino. That's on top of the $72,285 the league spent during the primary to get Buscaino into the final round. One private person's measly $500 contribution counts for little when measured against that kind of clout, unless the successful candidate has some integrity and backbone.

The Times' editorial page is counting on that integrity and backbone in Buscaino. We endorsed him over state Assemblyman Warren Furutani. And we meant it. And all we offered him is the same thing we offer everyone else who comes to see us -– a glass of water or a cup of coffee, and half an hour to an hour of our undivided attention. And maybe a cookie.

Although apparently we're doing more. We didn't intend to, but it goes with the endorsement territory: Working Californians (that's the electricians' and firefighters' union committee) printed portions of our endorsement in its latest mailer, even though in backing Buscaino we were straightforward about our reservations. See it here. Talk about uncoordinated; we didn't know about this until we saw it Tuesday on the Ethics Commission's website.

The business group backing Buscaino is BizFed PAC, A Project of Los Angeles County Business Federation; it is funded by chambers of commerce.

The numbers are still rolling in. The filing deadline for the period beginning Dec. 3 is Thursday.

Furutani's campaign got $6,202 in independent support in the primary from a group called Golden State Leadership Fund, which sent out four mailers referencing themes of special interest to Asian Americans, including the World War II-era forced internment of Japanese Americans. See one of the mailers here. Another mailer reads, "There is no one on the L.A. City Council who looks like us."

Although Golden State is independent, its strategy of targeting Asian American voters is very much in line with the Furutani campaign's approach, as discussed in this earlier post.

An independent group called the Korean American Democratic Committee also produced communications to elect Furutani but has not yet reported how much it spent.

Furutani has been backed by independent expenditures from the Los Angeles County Democratic Party: $4,704 for the primary and $10,000 so far for the runoff. The party has also spent $31,917 to communicate with its members in support of Furutani. The Los Angeles County Federation of Labor has spent $24,540 to urge its members to support Furutani.

To see all the spending reports and to view all the mailers, go here and click on the dollar amounts.


Who's donating to Buscaino, Furutani?

The Capitol contingent

Buscaino and the council cop bloc

--Robert Greene

Photos: Three bastions, three labor contracts, three ways to say "thank you": the Department of Water and Power, City Hall and LAPD headquarters. Credit: Robert Greene / Los Angeles Times

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