With Palo Alto's political races increasingly turning into big-money affairs, several City Council candidates said Wednesday night that they would support campaign reforms to rein in campaign spending.
In a forum sponsored by the Weekly, all five candidates, who are running for three seats on the council, said they see the growing campaign spending as a problem when asked about the topic.
Candidate Alison Cormack, who led the 2008 bond campaign to upgrade local libraries and has raised the second-highest total so far this year — $59,798 — was blunt in her assessment: The current council, she said, "bears full responsibility for not implementing campaign-finance reform."
Councilman Cory Wolbach said that he had tried to bring forward a colleagues memo to limit campaign spending in the past but that council colleagues who initially expressed interest withdrew their support of the memo.
Wolbach noted at the forum that since 2014, when he, Tom DuBois and Eric Filseth were elected to the council, the amount of money being pumped into campaigns has gone up dramatically. During that year, each of the three candidates raised less that $30,000 for his campaign (DuBois had total contributions of $23,859; Filseth received $26,127; and Wolbach raised $25,586). Councilman Greg Scharff and then-challenger Lydia Kou were on the higher end at that time, with Scharff reporting $97,551 and Kou reporting $41,617 raised through the end of 2014, according to campaign-finance documents.
In 2016, Kou (in her second attempt to get on the council) and Arthur Keller each raised about $80,000 to lead the race for cash.
So far this year, Wolbach has already more than doubled the total amount he raised in his first council run. According to the most recent finance documents, he has received $64,758 in contributions, with the latest one coming this week in the form of a $1,000 check from the local firefighters union, Palo Alto Professional Firefighters.
DuBois and Filseth have also each received far more money in the current campaign than they did during the entire election season in 2014. DuBois has reported $44,465 in cash raised, including a recent $5,000 contribution from resident Jeff Hoel, while Filseth has received $37,673.
Wolbach cited the recent trend and said he wants to see the next council revisit the issue.
"I hope that after this election, we can re-introduce this topic and actually get it done," Wolbach said. "We need campaign-finance reform in Palo Alto. Public financing is the way to go."
The candidates didn't propose any specific schemes for limiting campaign cash, though DuBois pointed to the example of Mountain View, which has a voluntary $24,000 spending cap, with adjustments for inflation. He called the influence of money on politics "corrosive" and said he would support a limit on campaign cash.
"I really think we're talking about very expensive land (and) a lot of big money in Palo Alto and we need to try to limit campaign money," DuBois said.
Cormack raised the fact that other candidates have been receiving $5,000 contributions. These contributions, which have largely come from five local families, helped beef up the campaign coffers of "slow-growth" candidates Keller and Kou in 2016 and are now boosting the campaigns of Filseth and DuBois.
"I think it's inappropriate," Cormack said of the $5,000 contributions.
Filseth, while bemoaning the escalating sums needed to wage a competitive bid, expressed doubt that the city can do anything to rein in spending.
"I don't know if it's something that can be unspooled or just comes with the urbanizing nature of Palo Alto and the region and so forth," Filseth said. "I'm sorry to see us go in that direction, but so be it."
Candidate Pat Boone, for his part, rejected the idea of "money in politics" altogether. He characterized his council bid as a "grassroots campaign" and said the focus of each candidate should be "connecting with the people."
"Make that the focus, not the dollar," Boone said.
In addition to discussing campaign-finance limits, candidates gave their views on issues relating to housing, transportation, commercial growth, parking, senior services, airplane noise, accessory-dwelling units, the political climate and more.
The candidates forum at Cubberley Community Center was co-sponsored by American Association of University Women, senior-services provider Avenidas, the Palo Alto Chamber of Commerce, and youth well-being collaborative Project Safety Net.
The entire candidates debate, which also includes questions that the candidates posed to one another, will be posted this weekend on our YouTube page.
See spreadsheets of the candidates' campaign donations:
Coming next week: Profiles of the five City Council candidates and summaries of their views on key city issues.
For complete 2018 election information, check out the Palo Alto voters' guide.