Local politicians are spending thousands of dollars to earn the “support” of non-existent organizations.
Los Angeles District Attorney Jackie Lacey has had a tough reelection cycle. Protests have led numerous local leaders—including Congressman Adam Schiff, Mayor Eric Garcetti, and Councilman Herb Wesson—to withdraw their support of Lacey. But as politicians were distancing themselves from the embattled DA, Lacey’s campaign was spending hundreds of thousands of dollars buying endorsements from Slate Mailer Organizations with names like “Independent Voters League,” “COPS Voter Guide, Inc,” and “Californians Vote Green.”
Slate mailer groups in California rake in money from campaigns while allowing candidates to create the impression they have the support of a particular demographic or interest group. Groups are largely operated by campaign consultants, many of whom run multiple slates. For example, by paying a single consultant, candidates can purchase a seal of approval from “Progressive Voter Guide,” “The Council for Concerned Women Voters,” “Our Voice Latino Voter Guide,” and “Coalition for Senior Citizen Security.” All four groups are operated by political consultant Renee Nahum. Nahum hung up when reached for comment.
Paul Arney, who runs:— Mike Dickerson (@MyDickerson) October 12, 2020
-Citizens Economic Council
-California Families Vote Green
-Californian's Vote Green
Affiliated with The Campaign School, former political director for Assembly District 36
These groups with appealing but misleading names are essentially laundering campaign advertisements, removing the candidate’s name from the ad, and replacing it with an independent-sounding organization that will appeal to targeted voters. These guides appear to be educational, but offer no insight into the positions or values of the campaigns they endorse.
(For more information on how Slate Mailer Organizations operate, check out my piece for LA Taco on the consultants operating these groups).
These transactions are routine — in the 2020 cycle, 14 candidates for Los Angeles City or County offices have paid at least five figures for endorsements from these groups, including over $789,000 from Lacey’s campaign.
County candidates spend more than city candidates by a wide margin due to their larger constituencies. Sending mail to millions of voters isn’t cheap, so it’s unsurprising District Attorney Lacey is the biggest spender—her county-wide race has a bigger voting pool than any other local race this cycle. Lacey has spent over $789,000 on paid slate endorsements. Her opponent, former San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón, has not purchased any.
The race for Supervisor District 2 offers another stark contrast—former city council president Herb Wesson has spent over $291,000 with slate groups, while state senator Holly Mitchell has chosen not to spend on these endorsements.
Candidates for County Judge are also among the biggest spenders. Troy Slaten put about $223,000 into slate mailers in his race, while another Superior Court candidate, Tim Reuben, spent just over $180,000. Both lost their primary elections. Judicial candidate Linda Sun, who also spent around $180,000, was more successful.
With much smaller constituencies for each candidate, spending on slate mailer organization endorsements is more subdued at the city level, though some candidates still spent well into the thousands of dollars.
In the City of Los Angeles, David Ryu for Council District (CD) 4 and Mark Ridley-Thomas for CD 10 were by far the biggest spenders. Both faced competitive primaries that pushed them into hotly contested general election runoffs, with Ryu facing Nithya Raman and Ridley-Thomas facing Grace Yoo. Both Raman and Yoo have chosen not to purchase slate mailer endorsements.
Among council members seeking reelection, Paul Krekorian lived up to his reputation as a budget-hawk — he was the only current office-holder in the city to completely abstain from slate mailer spending.
In total, city and county candidates have poured over $2.3 million into slate mailers. It’s unclear how effective these mailers will ultimately be—they proved ineffective in Slaten and Reuben’s failed campaigns for County Judge.
Endorsements from community groups, political parties, and other organizations are meaningful. In many cases, volunteers spend hours carefully considering candidates and ballot measures, determining the pros and cons of each, and making a final determination as to which choice best represents the organization’s values and goals. When the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA)—or even the National Rifle Association (NRA)— make an endorsement, voters have the opportunity to connect that endorsement to the mission and people associated with that organization. This in turn helps inform voters about the policy preferences and ideological priorities of candidates.
Paid endorsements devalue the time and work that goes into political organizing. They borrow the form and language of organizational endorsements to convince voters these ads represent a meaningful seal of approval for a given candidate. Slate mailers are a cynical attempt to generate votes from people who listen to the recommendations of the “California Senior Voter Guide” without considering who actually produced the guide.
Current law makes it difficult to stop the mailers altogether, but it does allow the state to regulate them. At present, slate mailers require minimal disclosures—candidates who pay to appear in the mailer receive a small asterisk next to their name, which correlates to an explanation at the bottom of the page. This is a good start, but it doesn’t properly convey to voters just how much candidates are paying to fund these mailers.
Instead of a small asterisk, the California Secretary of State should require mailers to clearly disclose the amount paid by each candidate next to that candidate’s name. It’s one thing to know that Jackie Lacey paid some amount of money to appear on a slate from the “John F. Kennedy Alliance.” It’s quite another to see next to her name that she paid $12,375 for that slot.
It’s likely that making this change would have a significant negative impact on slate mailer organizations, whose value proposition depends on voters believing the group sending out the mailer stands for something. But if giving voters clearer information about your practices will kill your industry, then your industry shouldn’t exist in the first place.
Want to learn more about your 2020 election ballot? Check out KNOCK.LA’s Voter Guide, which breaks down propositions and candidate platforms for over 120 races in and around LA County.
KNOCK.LA is a project paid for by Ground Game LA. This article was not authorized by a candidate or a committee controlled by a candidate.