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Charter group money flooded local election, but many donors live far away

Even with all the new technology at their fingertips, candidates for office continue to use the U.S. Postal Service as a conduit to the voter.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC
Political mailers from the 43rd Assembly District, where voters were deluged. Many mailers came not from campaigns but outside groups.

Big campaign spending from outside interests, including charter school advocates, helped propel a slew of state legislative candidates out of primaries onto November ballots. But in many cases, the candidates groups opposed also advanced, setting up costly general election rematches.

The flood of charter spending comes from a trio of groups that support the expansion of charter schools: committees representing EdVoice, California Charter School Association Advocates, and the Parent Teacher Alliance.

The PTA spent more than $1.4 million on a single Southern California Assembly race, accounting for more than 70 percent of the outside money in that contest.

While that spending could shape education policy across the state, a significant chunk of the PTA's financing arrives from across state and district lines.

The Parent Teacher Alliance has received $3.2 million in contributions since March 1, according to Secretary of State records. That funding has arrived indirectly from donors: the data shows California Charter Schools Association Advocates' political spending committee as the only donor to the PTA.

Most in-state donations to the CCSA Advocates committee come from Northern California, and recent donors list addresses outside the Southern California district where the group spent heavily.

CCSA Advocates are a well-known education reform player, and a fixture in Los Angeles debates over charters.The number of people and groups who have donated significant sums to the group is relatively limited. At 23, it's smaller than the average LAUSD kindergarten class.

Charter-backed candidates advanced in primary

The local election will feature a rematch between Democrats Laura Friedman and Ardy Kassakhian, both Glendale city officials vying to represent 43rd Assembly District in Sacramento. The district also encompasses Burbank and neighborhoods of Los Angeles including Los Feliz and the Hollywood Hills.

Charter interests weren't the only groups spending big there before June's primary. Real estate groups and teachers unions backed Kassakhain.

But 70 percent of the $2 million in outside political spending in that race came from the Parent Teacher Alliance. It spent $1.1 million to support Friedman and another $355,264 to defeat Kassakhian, the most spent by a charter group to oppose any candidate.

Statewide, the three charter groups spent more than $500,000 in seven races. The charter-backed candidates all advanced to the general election in these races.

So did the candidates they opposed. The lone exception was Dan Wolk in the 4th Assembly District, who came in third.

The charter groups didn't overlap in their activity, training their fire on separate legislative races.

Their campaign spending, termed 'independent expenditures' because they aren't coordinated with candidates' campaigns, should continue through the November 8 election.

"Spending in the most expensive races during the primary is just a prologue to what's coming in the general," said Rob Pyers of the California Target Book, which analyzes legislative races. Pyers said that if past trends hold, outside spending totals from the general could easily outpace the primary.

Many donors from Northern California, out of state

For the Parent Teacher Alliance, the group that put up $1.4 million in the Southern California Assembly race, funding has come entirely from the CCSA Advocates independent expenditure committee. The PTA's full, 14-word name notes the connection between the two groups.

State records show the CCSA Advocates have logged $14.4 million in contributions since 2013. Nearly $10 million of that has come in the current cycle.

A chunk of that cash has arrived from beyond state borders — $2.4 million. Out-of-state donors include well-known supporters of education reform, including former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg ($600,000), former Enron trader John D. Arnold ($1 million), and Walmart owners Alice and Jim Walton ($725,000). Another Walton, Carrie Walton Penner, lists an address in Menlo Park and donated an additional $1.6 million.

The group's California donors include familiar names, including Gap co-founder Doris Fisher ($3.4 million), Netflix CEO Reed Hastings ($2.5 million) and Bakersfield agriculture magnate Barbara Grimm ($986,000). Most in-state donations came from the Bay Area.

Eli Broad was most generous among the small cadre of Los Angeles-area donors, having provided $1.35 million since 2013. Former Los Angeles mayor Richard J. Riordan chipped in $50,000.

However, none of the donors listed a zip code in Secretary of State records that falls within Assembly District 43, where the PTA spent $1.4 million.

A number of donors to the CCSA committee have also given hundreds of thousands of dollars to the committee of another education reform group, EdVoice. They include Broad, Carrie Walton Penner and Arthur Rock.

The PTA, the CCSA Advocates, and EdVoice groups all spent seven figures in the run up to the primary. Together they totaled more than $11 million.

Charter group spending accounted for about 35 percent of all outside spending in legislative races, Rob Pyers estimated. "We're all but certain to see the hostilities resume in the fall on an even more epic scale," he predicted.

New focus for charter spending

Kathay Feng of Common Cause California said the infusion of cash by charter groups represents a new twist.

"Up until recently the focus of school policy was really on local races," Feng said. "It is a relatively recent phenomenon — in the last 3 to 4 years — where that conversation has been elevated to the state level."

Feng said that the charter group spending on statewide races had "changed the conversation".

Thad Kousser, a professor of political science at UCSD and former Sacramento staffer, said that outside spending, including from outside the state, isn't new. But traditionally the groups that have done it have been gambling, environmental and gun control interests, not charter school advocates.

That influence comes with a price tag. "California has by far the most expensive state legislative campaigns. No state is even close," he said, citing large districts and massive media markets in the state.

With extended term limits and a new primary system, Kousser said "all the money sucks into just a few districts." The top-two primary system can lead outside groups into spending early, Kousser added, to help candidates get out of the primary and onto the November ballot.

The large investments may be worth the cost because the Golden State can serve as a model. "If California makes a big change in an area like charter schools and school reform," Kousser said, "then other states that look to California will follow. And that makes it a good investment for out-of-state groups."

Outside spending can become campaign issue

Kathay Feng said that outside spending, and big names attached to local races, can backfire.

"Particularly in Southern California, what we've seen is that voters have become very sensitive to information about outside money coming in to races," she said. Feng cited the 2013 mayoral race in Los Angeles, in which candidates challenged one another over independent expenditures.

In the 43rd District Assembly race, Ardy Kassakhian objected to the PTA's spending and Laura Friedman distanced herself from it. The ubiquitous mailers — including many collected by KPCC's #WhoMailedIt project — showed that even outside groups made an issue of outside money, from other outside groups.

One primary mailer questioned the spending of the Parent Teacher Alliance to support Laura Friedman. It specifically cited backing by members of the Walton family and John Arnold.  The front of the mailer features Friedman—a Democrat—next to a picture of Donald Trump.

The mailer was funded by the California Teachers Association's committee, a union group that often battles charter interests.

A mailer funded by the Parent Teacher Alliance criticizes outside money spent to elect Ardy Kassakhian for ties to tobacco, the pharmaceutical industry and developers.

All totaled, outside groups have spent just over $2 million in the district, with the PTA chipping in more than 70 percent of that money.