Many of the political mailers reaching Westside homes this year, including all of those pictured, were paid for by independent expenditure committees  Photo by Jorge M. Vargas Jr.

Many of the political mailers reaching Westside homes this year, including all of those pictured, were paid for by independent expenditure committees Photo by Jorge M. Vargas Jr.

Nearly $1 million in campaign spending outside the candidates’ control has influenced political messaging during a Westside state Senate race

By Gary Walker

Of all the hotly contested June 3 primary election campaigns for Westside political offices, it appears the race for state Senate has been the one most deeply impacted by independent expenditures — in this case, spending on political advertisements in support of a candidate that occurs outside that candidate’s knowledge or control.

Independent expenditures have accounted for more than $900,000 spent so far in support of three candidates vying for a state Senate seat to represent Westchester, Venice, Santa Monica and nearby communities, according to California Secretary of State records.

The biggest spender: South Bay businessman Bill Bloomfield, a former Republican turned Independent who has spent more than $405,000 on campaign literature and research in support of Santa Monica – Malibu school board member Ben Allen, a Democrat. In 2012, Bloomfield challenged Henry Waxman for his Westside congressional seat and received 46% of the vote.

Health care-related political action committees have spent more than $390,000 in support of state Senate candidate Vito Imbasciani, a urologist who has not previously held political office.

The big-business political action committee The Alliance for California’s Tomorrow has spent more than $115,000 in support of Senate candidate Amy Howorth, mayor of Manhattan Beach.

Howorth has raised more than $380,000 for her own race, Imbasciani about $250,000, and Allen about $300,000, according to reports filed earlier this month.

Candidates are not allowed to coordinate with the makers of independent expenditures on their behalf, and even some of those who benefit are critical of election laws that allow such drastic spending.

“I can’t comment on [Bloomfield’s spending], but if I had my druthers I don’t think that I would want [independent expenditure committees] in our political system,” Allen said. “But the Supreme Court has decided that campaign donations are a form of speech, so that’s what we have right now. I don’t think that I agree with that ruling, but that’s the way things are.”

Allen was referring to the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision Citizens United vs. the Federal Election Committee, which many describe as the watershed moment that empowered large financial interests to flood races with unlimited spending.

Bloomfield said his independent expenditures for Allen are intended to counter the political influence and financial might of special interest groups.

“Everybody that you talk to about [Allen] will tell you that he is absolutely brilliant and that he is very ethical. And smarts and ethics are two things that we definitely need in Sacramento,” said Bloomfield, adding that he met Allen in August and was impressed by his service on the school board.

“My wife and I knew there would be other special interests from Sacramento that would be helping certain candidates try to amplify their message, and we want to help Ben amplify his message. We want voters to know that Ben has a real passion for education and what a fine man he is. We need people who are willing to be ethical and to not be beholden to Sacramento special interests,” Bloomfield said.

Steven Baskin, a political consultant with Pasadena-based SG&A Campaigns, was not surprised to hear that independent expenditures were influencing the Westside state Senate race.

“In California, we already had independent expenditures by the time Citizens United was handed down,” said Baskin, whose firm is not active in the race.

Baskin said a 2002 state ballot proposition that tightened campaign spending limits opened the door to independent expenditures playing a larger role in state races. Since that time, “there have been attempts to limit campaign contributions even more … but independent expenditure committees can still spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on a race,” he said. “You plug one hole and another one opens.”

Groups supporting Imbasciani through independent expenditures include a committee sponsored by the California Medical Assoc. and Keeping Californians Working, a coalition of real estate, energy and insurance interests. Californians Allied for Patient Protection — a group that supports limits to medical malpractice suits and is funded by hospitals, doctors and health care centers — has also supported Imbasciani, who did not return calls for this story.

The Alliance for California’s Tomorrow, spending in support of Howorth, includes funders as diverse as Occidental Petroleum, the health care insurer Blue Shield, various real estate groups and unions.

Mark Galanty of Galanty & Company, a Santa Monica-based political consulting firm, said outside spending is largely about message dissemination.

“At one time, there were only a few television stations and it was much harder for candidates to be able to connect with voters. Now with the Internet, campaign consultants are looking to get their candidates’ message out in as many outlets as they can, and that takes money,” Galanty said. “It’s the way that politics is now, even in state Senate races. I’m not surprised to see that these independent expenditure committees are spending what they are in this race.”

Former state Assemblywoman Betsy Butler, who is also running for the 26th Senate District seat, said the amount of money spent in the race so far underscores a need for new campaign fundraising rules.

“It goes back to the fact that we need campaign finance reform. Voters need to be aware of who is supporting candidates who receive money from outside groups and what that money’s being spent on,” said Butler, who has not benefitted from independent expenditures during this election cycle, according to state records.

In 2012, an independent expenditure committee spent $123,000 to oppose Butler’s bid for re-election to the Assembly, in which she was ultimately defeated by current state Assemblyman Richard Bloom (D- Santa Monica).

As for the current race: “These groups don’t give me money because they know what my values are, and I would find it hard to believe if a candidate said they were surprised that someone was spending that amount of money to support them,” Butler said. “Who spends [more than] $350,000 supporting a candidate that he hardly knows, and what does the person behind that expenditure want?”

State Senate candidate Sandra Fluke also has not benefitted from independent expenditures, according to records.

Independent expenditures are not new on the Westside, even in local campaigns.

Last year groups that included a committee funded by former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg spent more than $1 million in support of Mar Vista resident Kate Anderson’s unsuccessful bid to unseat Los Angeles Unified School District Board of Education member Steve Zimmer.

Though big spending doesn’t always carry the day, independent expenditure groups can have an especially strong impact on low-key races.

“It’s much harder to have a big influence on [national] races, but in campaigns where there isn’t as much attention —  like an Assembly or a state Senate race — independent expenditure groups can certainly make a difference,” Baskin said.

In the current election cycle, independent expenditure committees have spent about $400,000 in support of state Assembly candidate Autumn Burke. These include FairPAC, a Civil Justice Assn. of California-sponsored group that aims to reduce monetary awards in civil litigation, and Imbasciani supporters Keeping Californians Working.

So far, mailers paid for by outside groups have largely kept to positive messaging, but that could change in a close race.

“In the early stages, the focus is usually about biography and in some cases introducing a candidate to the voters. The closer you get to the election, especially in the general election, it can often become more about getting out your voters and trying to depress the rest of the vote through negative campaigning,” Galanty said.

Not that such a strategy always works.

“I think the voters are a lot smarter than these [independent expenditure committees] think they are. This is an intelligent, engaged district, and they’ve seen this sort of thing before,” Galanty said.