$1.1 million in PAC money flows into Irvine elections

IRVINE – Political action committees have funneled $1.1 million into the Irvine mayoral and City Council races as of Tuesday, according to a Register analysis, dwarfing campaign contributions candidates are raising and spending on their own.

Forty-three percent of that money has been used to attack Mary Ann Gaido, a candidate for mayor who has promised to halt new residential developments in the city. Gaido, a planning commissioner, said developers are pouring money through independent expenditure committees.

“It is hurting our democracy,” Gaido said. “They are essentially buying up the City Council.”

The city limits direct contributions to candidates to $470 per donor. But there’s no limit to how much PACs can receive – typically from corporations, labor unions and wealthy individuals – to run campaigns parallel to those of the candidates they support or oppose.

“I think it really undermines the system,” Bob Stern, former president of the Center for Governmental Studies and a campaign finance expert, said about independent spending by PACs.

Although independent expenditures have nothing to do with candidates, he said, they allow wealthy people to wield more influence than individuals who give money directly to candidates.

Independent expenditure committees are pouring money into crowded Irvine city elections, featuring five candidates for mayor and 11 for council, because they are close races, Stern said.

Four PACs have spent $466,908 in media ads, literature and mailers attacking Gaido, according to campaign finance reports. That trumps the $91,596 she’s received in monetary contributions this year, the most of any Irvine candidates.

In addition, two of the PACs have spent $95,839 opposing council candidates Melissa Fox and Farrah Khan, both of whom are endorsed by the Democratic Party of Orange County, along with Gaido.

It’s sometimes difficult to trace what groups, companies or individuals are funding PACs because money can go through multiple committees before being spent on candidates in various races.

For example, the California Homeowners Association committee has spent over $255,305 opposing Gaido and $172,140 supporting mayoral candidate Don Wagner and council candidates Christina Shea and Anthony Kuo. The PAC received $49,000 from developer Starpointe Ventures, which has stakes in Irvine projects.

Moving Orange County Forward – funded by such entities as the Building Industry Association of Southern California PAC, Orange County Business Council PAC and Disney Worldwide Services – has spent over $93,000 supporting Wagner and incumbent Shea, as well as contributing to PACs opposing Gaido.

Building Industry Association of Southern California PAC received $100,000 from FivePoint, which is overseeing the development of thousands of homes near the Orange County Great Park, $75,000 from the Irvine Co., and $50,000 from Starpointe Ventures.

Starpointe and FivePoint officials said they had no comments for this article.

Independent expenditure committees have spent $274,065 in support of Wagner, which is nearly 25 times the amount the Republican state assemblyman has spent for his mayoral campaign through Oct. 22 – $11,177.

Despite receiving support from these PACs, Wagner said he’s frustrated with outside spending because he cannot control the messages. Candidates are not allowed to coordinate with independent expenditure committees.

Campaign finance expert Stern said independent expenditures occasionally backfire against candidates when messages get nasty.

“Some people say, ‘Why do you run negative ads?’” Wagner said. “I have not put out any negative stuff. It’s unfortunate.”

Shea also said she’s not a fan of outside spending. In the past, it was her opponents who received support from independent expenditures, she said.

Shea said she would like to see independent expenditures banned. However, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that freedom of speech prohibits the government from restricting them.

“I totally believe that these independent expenditures, they just don’t create a fair playing field, and it’s really driven by political agendas of people,” she said.

Wagner blames the low contribution limit to candidates for the excessive independent expenditures in Irvine.

Kuo said the $470 cap is too low to send out messages to the more than 119,000 voters in Irvine. Santa Ana, for instance, has a $1,000 limit per election cycle.

Wagner and Kuo stressed they would not be beholden to special interest groups funding independent expenditure committees that support them.

“They like things I stand for,” Wagner said. “They don’t like things Mary Ann stands for.”

Gaido said Wagner, as a seasoned state assemblyman, must be aware that the $23,308 he has raised isn’t enough to fund a campaign in a large city like Irvine.

Wagner says he’s raising enough to get his positive message out.

“He’s allowing big developers to totally fund his campaign and smear my name and character,” Gaido said about Wagner. “It is very disappointing.”

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