Strict limits on campaign contributions imposed by voters nearly three decades ago are crumbling in the Los Angeles mayor's race, with big donors using loosely regulated "super PACs" to help candidates like never before in a citywide election, a Times analysis has found.
Of the $17.5 million collected so far to support mayoral hopefuls Wendy Greuel and Eric Garcetti, roughly one-third — a record $6.1 million — has gone into independent political action committees that can accept contributions of any size.
The rise of the parallel campaign finance system, awash in five- and six-figure donations that dwarf the limits approved by voters, has watchdogs of political influence sounding alarms.
"This is not the system that the reformers envisioned," said Benjamin Bycel, who was executive director of the city's Ethics Commission in the 1990s. The surge in independent campaign spending, he said, "essentially guts" laws setting contribution limits.
Many of the outsized PAC donations come from interests with a financial stake in City Hall decisions, including public employee unions looking to protect pay and benefits that have long used their financial might to elect political allies.
But increasingly, other donors — developers, entertainment moguls, philanthropists — are utilizing the system of limitless donations to promote their favored candidates.
The rise of the super PAC in L.A. city elections is another byproduct of U.S. Supreme Court rulings that have gradually diluted federal, state and local efforts to limit campaign contributions and spending. Los Angeles' ethics laws cap individual and company contributions in mayoral contests at $1,300 during the primary election and another $1,300 in a runoff, if one occurs.
For decades, the high court has held that unlimited spending by independent campaign groups — and unlimited donations to those entities by individuals and companies — is constitutionally protected free speech. The only real restriction: The advertising, polling and get-out-the vote activities funded by the PACs can't be coordinated with campaign operations controlled by the candidates.
Independent expenditures first became a significant factor in L.A.'s mayoral elections in 2001, when $1.9 million was spent by unions, billboard companies and other business interests in the contest between James Hahn and Antonio Villaraigosa. In a rematch four years later, the number jumped to $4.3 million.
A watershed came in 2008, when organized labor spent more than $8.5 million to elect state lawmaker Mark Ridley-Thomas to the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. That was nearly nine times what Ridley-Thomas raised for his own campaign.
With mixed success, labor groups have been seeking to replicate that winning formula at City Hall and, this year, some prominent business interests have joined their efforts.
In the current mayor's race, two candidate super PACs — Working Californians for Wendy Greuel and Lots of People Who Support Eric Garcetti — have received the biggest share of the unlimited money, taking in five- and six-figure donations from unions, contractors, developers and others.
Garcetti is also getting help from the Committee for a Safer Los Angeles, created by Obama campaign fundraiser Samantha Millman. And Greuel has been assisted by a committee created and financed by EMILY's List, a Washington, D.C.-based group that backs Democratic women who favor abortion rights.
McCourt Group, headed by former Los Angeles Dodgers owner Frank McCourt, has given $50,000 to Working Californians for Greuel, which is headed by officials with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, the union that represents Department of Water and Power employees. McCourt is expected to develop property near the team's Chavez Ravine stadium.
Petrochem Manufacturing, which produces road resurfacing materials for the city, gave $10,000 to Working Californians. Construction management firm AECOM, which regularly seeks city contracts at the airport and harbor, gave $25,000 apiece to PACs backing Greuel and Garcetti. And Meruelo Enterprises, a company involved in real estate, banking and media, spent $34,500 to help Garcetti.
The biggest super PAC donations by far have come from organized labor. The DWP union, which is looking to negotiate a new contract, has put at least $1.45 million into Working Californians for Greuel. Another private-sector branch of the same union, which is pushing for a law allowing new digital billboards in Los Angeles, gave the committee $250,000. So did the city firefighters union, which opposed Garcetti's vote to reduce staffing at stations during a budget crisis.
"The bottom line is, we would have given the same amount of money whether it was Wendy or whether it was Eric," said Frank Lima, president of the United Firefighters of Los Angeles. "The members didn't go with Eric based on the cuts."
Unions have spent so much on Greuel — $3.5 million in unlimited donations, or more than nine times the amount for Garcetti — that their spending has threatened to become a drag on her campaign. In a USC Price/Los Angeles Times poll conducted last week, voters named Greuel as the candidate who cares more about unions representing city employees than about Los Angeles as a whole.
By comparison, organized labor, mostly private-sector unions, had given $382,000 in uncapped contributions to efforts to elect Garcetti. The Teamsters and longshore workers at the Port of Los Angeles contributed $100,000 each, and the supermarket clerks union, which is fighting a Wal-Mart supermarket in Chinatown, kicked in $50,000.
The flow of uncontrolled money has come on top of more than $11.3 million collected directly by the Greuel and Garcetti campaigns through thousands of small donations at or under the $1,300 limit.
Entertainment interests led the way, with studios, producers, directors and others providing at least $955,000 for Garcetti and at least $555,000 to Greuel, an analysis by The Times found. Not far behind were real estate, development and construction interests, which gave at least $809,000 to Greuel and at least $666,000 to Garcetti. Lawyers and law firms came in third, giving Greuel slightly more than Garcetti.
Garcetti took $14,700 from employees of Jamison Services, which leases office space to various city agencies. He received $8,400 in contributions from employees of McCormack Baron Salazar, a firm that recently completed a 90-unit affordable housing project with $12.3 million in city funding.
Greuel received a combined $9,600 from eight employees of Tutor Perini, parent company of the firm that won a $266-million contract to rebuild a runway at Los Angeles International Airport. At least $6,500 came from executives at Fifteen Group, which is looking to raze and rebuild one of the city's largest apartment complexes in Boyle Heights.
By complying with the city's spending limits, Greuel and Garcetti also secured a combined $2.9 million in taxpayer funds for their campaigns. That was another voter-approved reform intended to widen the field of City Hall candidates and encourage those who lack personal wealth or backing from well-heeled special interests to run for office.
The growing reliance on unlimited money has spread to other races. Backers of city controller candidate Dennis Zine, including the LAX police officers' union, have been funding the Committee to Control Wasteful Spending. Supporters of City Atty. Carmen Trutanich, who is in a tough reelection fight, created L.A. Residents for Accountability. Independent campaign operations also have sprung up in an array of City Council races.
Jaime Regalado, professor emeritus of political science at Cal State L.A., said this year's campaign is stark evidence that unlimited donations to super PACs are beginning to eclipse sums gathered from a broader cross section of average citizens, undermining the spirit of "one person, one vote."
"The more a role that large money plays in politics," he said, "the less democratic [the system] becomes."
Times data analyst Anthony Pesce contributed to this report.