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Expect Surge of ‘Dark Money’ in Local Politics Thanks to New CA Law

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Proponents of a recently enacted state law claim it decreases the influence of money in politics, but writer Garrett Gatewood says it will have the opposite effect. (Shutterstock)
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When I became the first Black person elected to the Rancho Cordova City Council in 2018, I wasn’t the scion of a powerful political family or the beneficiary of wealthy special interests. I made history because of my track record fighting for my community, and was able to mobilize a lot of fellow citizens who shared my passion and were willing to invest in my campaign.

Garrett Gatewood

Opinion

Senate Bill 1439, authored by Sen. Steve Glazer, would make that impossible for future candidates facing the same challenges, and make it harder for political newcomers and members of minority groups to get elected.

The law took effect this year. I joined a lawsuit to try and stop it.

The policy is described as a tool to “ban pay-to-play,” which is a good soundbite, but such unethical activity has been and remains illegal. Rather than improving ethical campaign activity and good government policy, in practice, SB 1439 is a well-intentioned disaster that will disproportionately hurt minorities trying to win a seat at the table.

I understand the challenges that underrepresented communities must overcome to compete for public office. Let’s be honest, politics favors the rich and powerful, not people who look like me. SB 1439 will make it even harder.

Proponents of the bill claim it decreases the influence of money in politics by drastically reducing how much candidates can receive from donors who have an interest in the future of their communities. But in truth, it forces campaign money underground and empowers wealthy candidates and special interests.

History has shown that restrictions on publicly-disclosed contributions to candidates actually increase how much money is spent on campaigns. Even worse, it hides that spending from public and media scrutiny by shifting it into dark-money PACs and independent expenditure campaigns funded by special interests with no spending limits and little motivation to tell the truth.

I certainly would rather know who is really funding the candidates running in my community.

Shifts Power to Unaccountable Special Interests

Politics today is toxic enough – we should not surrender control of public debate to unaccountable special interests who will flood our mailboxes and airwaves with negative hit pieces. Meanwhile, this law would limit new and minority candidates’ access to the funds needed to share their vision and their words with their constituents.

SB 1439 takes power from local elected officials – and the voters who elected them – by prohibiting officials from voting for 12 months after a contribution of just $250 is made. That would stall efforts to build roads, revitalize schools, create affordable housing or tackle homelessness.

California faces a host of crises from education and infrastructure, to crime, homelessness and housing. This law doesn’t solve any of them. And, it will make it harder for us to elect more diverse, representative candidates who are ready to fight for real solutions.

About the Authors

Garrett Gatewood is a member of the Rancho Cordova City Council. He wrote this for CalMatters, a nonprofit, nonpartisan newsroom committed to explaining California policy and politics.

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