There’s been a brief break from campaigning in the special election for San Diego’s next mayor, but the new year is sure to bring with it more political television ads and glossy mailers clogging up mailboxes.
Often those aren’t paid for by the candidates themselves – but by independent expenditure committees, colloquially known as super PACs.
In San Diego, the first leg of the special election was crowded. There were multiple candidates in the race and some had multiple super Political Action Committees behind them. That isn’t really a surprise, but there was one name that kept popping up in all the groups supporting Republican candidate and San Diego City Councilman Kevin Faulconer.
All those groups, even the ones that were supposed to be independent from each other, shared a treasurer -- April Boling.
Jessica Levinson is a campaign finance expert at Loyola Law School. I asked her if super PACs and campaigns had to be separate. She said a lot of people would be “surprised to know that an organization that is supposed to be independent from a candidates campaign can actually share a treasurer.”
To understand, Levinson said, you have to go back to 2010 when a new era in politics was ushered in -- the era of the super PAC. Because of the Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United, super PACs could run a shadow campaign, throwing unlimited amounts of money toward a candidate’s campaign with one condition: they can’t coordinate with the candidate.
Levinson said that is proving true only in theory. “In reality super PACs are very attendant to candidates needs," said Levinson. "And this idea of independence really is all but a legal fiction.”
Levinson says its fictional nature is due, in part, to the newness of the Citizens United ruling and the super PACS it spawned. “Because they are new” she said, “we are still really writing the law as to what they can do and we still are creating and refining regulations with what exactly coordination means.”
The key word is coordination, but Levinson said it just hasn’t been well defined by regulators or by the courts.
Gary Winuk is the chief of enforcement for the California Fair Political Practices Commission, which means he oversees regulations of super PACs and campaigns.
Winuk said there are a number of factors that they look at to determine what is coordination.
"How much communication was occurring between the campaigns, do they share common staff?” said Winuk.
So sharing staff can be coordination, but Winuk says that isn’t set in stone either, especially when it comes to outside professional staff, like lawyers and treasurers.
“Sharing campaign staff can mean a lot of different things,” Winuk said. “For example, a lot of people hire professional treasurers, that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re coordinating.”
The fact that April Boling is the treasurer for both the super PACs supporting Kevin Faulconer and his campaign does not necessarily mean coordination is occurring. Part of that is because a treasurer just takes in money – they don’t do strategy.
Boling choose not to talk to KPBS for this story about her role in the campaigns.
Campaign finance expert Jessica Levinson says Boling’s example is part of a larger pattern of slipperiness in what constitutes coordination. She says what it really reveals isn’t that there is any wrong doing in San Diego. It's that the idea of independence between all these groups is a political farce.
“What this situation shows,” Levinson said, “is really that candidates and super PACs can have connections and relationships, and that this idea that they can’t coordinate is really a thin idea.”
Levinson says this thin idea is allowing for a lot more money to flood into politics in the era of super PACs.