In November 2020, Andrea Cardenas proposed incumbent Mike Diaz for a seat on the Chula Vista city council.
The race got a little media attention. Cardenas, a Democratic political advisor, had helped vote for others across the region. Diaz, a retired firefighter, was running for an independent after the Republican Party questioned his conservatism.
In the end, Cardenas didn’t just make more money than Diaz. She also surpassed him and was in debt. Cardenas’ unpaid campaign bills were $ 36,691, more than Diaz had raised from donors over the course of the entire election. He finished with a slight excess.
Ending a campaign in debt is not a problem in many cities. But the Chula Vista City Code states that “loan extension … is subject to the contribution limit of $ 360.00 per person”.
As written, the community ordinance suggests that bills, if not paid immediately, become a donation. However, since the donation cap is capped to ensure that everyone is competing at an even level, campaign debts above a certain amount could be construed as an illegal means of fundraising.
Chula Vista elected officials have known the limits of campaign debt for years and argue that the rules are unclear. It is noteworthy that the municipal law neither defines a loan extension nor provides a time frame for when it must be paid off before it becomes a donation.
But they also never cleared the city’s local government order so that everyone would have a common understanding of the rules and so that people would not leave a trail of bills on the way to victory.
Cardenas is not an outlier. In Chula Vista, it is common for candidates who attain office to amass a substantial amount of debt and then raise funds to pay them off after the election.
Alderman John McCann ended his 2014 campaign with $ 40,662 for literature and mailings. Two years later, La Prensa examined the donors who helped McCann pay his bills and found that several were affiliated with development companies doing business before the city council.
McCann told VOSD in an email that he was complying with the law because “the 2014 campaign costs were paid in full and on time.”
In the same election, Steve Padilla lost by only two votes to McCann and owed a law firm $ 28,580 when he filed his campaign report.
“The point of extending the credit rules, as far as I have always understood it, is to prevent candidates and advisors from playing the system,” said Padilla’s adviser Dan Rottenstreich. “In other words, a lobbyist sends $ 50,000 worth of mail on behalf of a candidate saying, ‘No, don’t worry, I’ll send you an invoice, you can pay me anytime.’ That’s something you want to stop. “
But unpaid bills for goods and services shouldn’t automatically count as credit extensions, Rottenstreich said. He also argued that the circumstances underlying Padilla’s debt were unique – he was collecting court bills after election day in preparation for a recount. The city’s campaign borders made it difficult to raise money after voting, Rottenstreich said, because many Padilla donors had already given the maximum amount allowed in Chula Vista.
“We couldn’t just pay the whole bill,” he said. “We just hit a wall.”
Rottenstreich said the city’s campaign regulations were “basically nonexistent” and that it was imperative to count every vote at the time. Padilla’s campaign eventually paid off part of his legal bills, urging the state to close the committee in 2020.
It is also common for candidates to provide financial incentives to their advisors if they win, as Mary Salas did during her 2012 presidential election and 2014 mayoral election. On both occasions, she reported a $ 10,000 win bonus owed to her team. Padilla offered his advisors a $ 5,000 win bonus in 2020. McCann offered his $ 5,000 in 2014.
In an interview, Salas described the city’s current credit rules as “vague” and “complex,” which made it difficult for people to understand, but said she paid off her debt in the months following those elections. She agreed, however, the rules deserve another look and possible clarification.
Then the question of enforcement arises. Violations of the city’s campaign funding rules will be punished as a misdemeanor. But it does not appear that any candidate or elected official has ever been quoted. In an email, City Attorney Glen Googins said he could not recall extending credit complaints filed during his tenure.
Shortly after his June 2010 election, Googins proposed a more robust enforcement system after years of political campaigns complaining to one another.
Current local law requires the city’s Ethics Council to appoint a panel of outside lawyers in response to complaints related to campaign funding. If one of the attorneys finds that the complaint meets a “knowing and willful” standard, Googins should forward it to the prosecutor. If the complaint meets a “negligent” standard, Googins should forward it to another lawyer on the panel for further examination.
If there are complaints about Googins themselves, the city clerk should take over his duties.
The thing is, Googins finished his first prosecutor application in June 2010 with more than $ 20,000 in debt – a combination of funds he owed other advisors and attorneys – that he paid off before he took office.
“I felt it was important – especially as the city’s first elected city attorney – to avoid any appearance of inappropriateness or influence by stopping all campaigning activities before starting my professional duties,” said Googins. “Other people’s circumstances and approaches to how best to deal with campaign debt can reasonably vary.”
He also acknowledged that there are several parts of the city’s campaign funding rules that need clarification, adding, “I hope to work with the city council to address these areas before I leave office.” He will be released in 2022.
California offers some pointers on the matter. The state’s Fair Political Practices Commission, which sets the bar for campaign funding, says unpaid bills become loans with a contribution cap after 45 days. It also contains rules designed to ensure that vendors are acting in good faith and are not trying to increase a candidate’s chances of doing anything other than a political favor.
In the absence of its own clear definitions, Chula Vista would submit to the state, said Jim Sutton, a California political and electoral law attorney. There are legitimate reasons why an invoice can go unpaid for a short time. At the same time, there is a legitimate public interest in ensuring that campaigns do not exceed the agreed limits. Cities other than Chula Vista might have stricter rules, Sutton said, but “it makes candidates known: you will be personally liable for debts, so be careful.”
Almost everyone I spoke to agreed that the Chula Vista campaign funding rules need to be revised.
“I have been advocating for years unsuccessful changes to the Chula Vista campaign finance law,” said Bill Baber, a San Diego ethics commissioner who also served as McCann’s 2014 treasurer for the campaign. “The debt rule is one of many ambiguities in this law. It really needs to be cleaned up. “
Baber made a suggestion. The city of San Diego has a requirement that supplier debts must be paid within 180 days. Chula Vista should adopt this model, he said, “or create a blue ribbon to look at all of the law, rewrite it, and put it on the ballot for voters to approve. Either way would solve the problem, but until you solve the problem, it will be the Wild West. “
Cardenas has long worked – and appears to be still working – as the director of community affairs for Grassroots Resources, a policy advisory firm with deep roots in South Bay. Most of the money she owed after choosing TMC Direct, a division of Turpin McLaughlin Communications that specializes in printing and shipping.
The two have a financial relationship. Local and state campaign funding reports show that Grassroots Resources worked with TMC Direct on other campaigns – in at least one case, they subvended Turpin McLaughlin Communications – but I couldn’t find any cases of these campaigns owing TMC Direct money that ended. Cardenas only.
“While I believe it is necessary to go through the ambiguity of the campaign funding section of our Chula Vista Township Law, I want to make it clear that all debts from my campaign have been paid,” Cardenas wrote in a statement. “This will be shown when our committee’s dismissal report is filed.”
TMC Direct did not return a request for comment.
Meanwhile, Cardenas ‘opponent Diaz does not seem bitter about the 2020 election result – “the good man is in charge, not me,” he said – but he is convinced that Cardenas’ campaign expenses are a direct cause of his losing re-election . He said many candidates have used similar tactics over the years and will continue to do so until the city puts an end to it.
“Right now,” he said, “there are absolutely no consequences.”