Spending by political action committees has become increasingly common in Burbank city and school board races this year, apparently catching the candidates who benefited from that spending off guard.
School board candidates David Dobson and Charlene Tabet said they were surprised to learn that two committees had spent more than $26,000 in promotional material supporting their campaigns — far more than any school board candidate has raised so far in this year's race.
Both political action committees belong to the educational reform group StudentsFirst, led by former District of Columbia schools chancellor Michelle Rhee. So-called independent expenditure committees are prohibited from coordinating with the candidates they target.
Meanwhile, City Council incumbent Jess Talamantes was just as puzzled that an anti-Walmart, labor union-sponsored PAC raised $20,000 in an effort to unseat him. As of their most recent expenditure report filed last month, the group spent $8,300 on campaign mailers.
The group, Burbank Residents Opposed to Jess Talamantes Slashing Public Safety, is being bankrolled by the United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 770 political action committee, which represents roughly 35,000 workers in the retail food industry, about 800 of whom live in Burbank.
But it's hardly the first time outside groups have been involved in local elections. In 2011, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 18 spent $42,110 to support Bob Frutos in his unsuccessful bid for the dais and to oppose Emily Gabel-Luddy, who was successful. Frutos — who received no independent expenditure support this year — won a seat on the council last month by capturing more than 50% of the vote in the primary.
The IBEW also spent $18,861 in 2011 on Councilman Gary Bric's reelection campaign.
According to Cal State Fullerton political science professor Sarah Hill, StudentsFirst's participation in supporting candidates in large school districts is not unheard of, but she's puzzled over the group's involvement in Burbank.
“It makes sense that they're going after large districts,” Hill said. “I don't get Burbank. That's the mystery I don't have any answer to and I'm really curious to find out.”
StudentsFirst has a history of drawing backlash from teacher unions for seeking to base teacher evaluations on student test scores and pushing for charter schools to reform public education.
But those conversations are next to non-existent in Burbank Unified, a well-performing school district.
For StudentsFirst to enter any local election, Hill said, signifies “a bold new move” for the group.
“They're getting into a lot of these local races to try to impact policy agenda,” she said.
The StudentsFirst PAC spent $250,000 in February supporting Los Angeles Unified school board candidates opposed by that district's teachers union.
In the weeks leading up to Burbank's primary election, the political action committee Parents and Teachers for Putting StudentsFirst spent $13,350 on promotional mailers for Dobson and Tabet.
The same PAC also contributed $16,100 to a separate political action committee also headed by StudentsFirst called Families for Better Burbank Schools Supporting Char Tabet & David Dobson for School Board 2013.
Records show Families for Better Burbank Schools spent another $6,750 each on support mailers for Tabet and Dobson.
Both candidates speculated on the support they received.
“I appreciate their support, but want to make it clear that I am not their puppet,” Dobson said in an email, adding that he didn't know why the committees supported him. “I have always said that I am open to all ideas and will listen to every perspective before making decisions and maybe that is why these groups have decided to help my campaign.”
Meanwhile, Tabet said, “They must have researched me and liked what they read.”
It is also uncertain how PAC spending will influence future local races.
“This is a whole new tactic that is taking things to another level,” Hill said.
Talamantes said he cannot gauge the impact the mailers had on his campaign, though he still ended up in third place out of six candidates in the February primary. But with $11,700 left in its coffers, the group can still do some damage, he said.
“Anytime anybody puts out a piece talking negatively about a certain individual, people that don't know me probably question, ‘Is this true or not?'” Talamantes said. “I've tried to send a message that I've done the best I can the past four years.”
While going door-to-door, Talamantes said residents have come to his defense.
“I heard, ‘We don't need that kind of negative, dirty politics. Burbank doesn't do business like that,'” he said. “I kind of tend to agree.”