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By Royal Calkins
When the FBI roared into Fresno politics a couple decades back, the agents provided quick lessons to reporters who had spent untold hours studying campaign financial reports in hopes of finding reportable news about candidates for local office.
“You won’t find what you’re looking for in the reports,” Jim Wedick, the senior agent on the case told me. “It’s what’s not in there that matters.”
Wedick went on to obtain criminal convictions against several Fresno-area politicians and developers in an investigation named Operation Rezone because of the “REZONE” license plates one cocky development lobbyist had on his car.
It wasn’t campaign contributions that got them sent to the pokey. It was gifts — an unimpressive assortment that included a new suit for one council member and a set of used tires for another.
But reporters, without the tools available to the FBI, are left with studying campaign reports for clues about campaign trends and potential shenanigans. The real story is who got free Super Bowl tickets but we must content ourselves with trying to figure out who’s getting big money from the big shots. Are the various political action committees all donating to the same candidates? Is it a coincidence or a conspiracy?
From the latest campaign reports, we won’t find evidence of new suits or used tires, but we can see who’s trying to curry favor and, as it happens, we can learn a fair amount about the county’s large but struggling marijuana industry. It’s an incomplete picture because cannabis is a cash business. While cash contributions are verboten, the FBI is known to be vigorously investigating the movement of marijuana money into politicians’ pockets here and in several other California counties. A prediction: long lines at the federal “Let’s Make a Deal” window.
Despite what isn’t in them, the campaign reports are useful and we’ve learned from experience that the reports for officials who aren’t on the approaching March 3 ballot also can be illuminating.
Let’s start with the only local contested race on the March ballot hereabouts. The campaign in Monterey County Supervisor District 4 holds tremendous importance for the future of Monterey County governance.
The seat is now held by longtime supervisor Jane Parker, the quiet one, who has won an army of supporters among the environmentalists and progressives of Monterey County while withstanding steady assault from the bankers, the growers, “the hospitality boys.”
In many ways, this contest is a repeat of the 2016 campaign in which Parker held off former Salinas Mayor Dennis Donohue in an awkward district. It takes in much of south Salinas but also covers Seaside, Marina and most of the surrounding area. In her winning 2016 campaign, Parker championed sensible planning while Donohue was an unsuccessful tiger for building houses, building businesses, building the bottom line.
The awkward geography is what makes the District 4 seat particularly important. The Board of Supervisors has five members — three based in the Salinas Valley, one representing Carmel Valley and the Peninsula south of District 4, and that seat in awkward District 4.
Salinas Valley interests already dominate county politics. A victory in District 4 this time around would make the one remaining Peninsula representative more of a lobbyist than a decision-maker.
At the moment, Parker represents District 4 and Mary Adams represents mostly coastal District 5 to the south. They are like-minded politicians with strong support from area Democrats, Cal Am Water opponents and political activists. That has led to a stream of 3-2 votes but the two Peninsula women have managed to finesse the situation to keep Peninsula interests from being trampled.
With Adams running for re-election unimposed, the powerful forces of the Salinas Valley, led by ag and development, see this race as an opportunity to take the Peninsula out of the game. Already there is talk about a new, more development-friendly general plan, of planting subdivisions instead of lettuce in the fields between Salinas and Monterey.
In Parker’s place this time is one of her assistants on the county payroll, Wendy Root Askew. She is enjoying support from the same pockets of progressivism that propelled Parker’s campaigns. Askew is almost as quiet as Parker but she understands the expectations and is starting to develop the sharp elbows of a successful politician. She’s a veteran of the Monterey Peninsula school district board, not a bad training ground for politicians.
In the role of Donohue this time around is longtime Salinas City Councilman Steve McShane, who has shared much of Donohue’s perspective over the years but who has recently done a good job of hiding it. Despite a background steeped in Republicanism, he has declared himself a Democrat at least for the time being and has shown up at various labor and political events populated largely by those to his left.
There are two other candidates, neither of whom is mounting a serious campaign. They do become a factor, however, because unless either Askew or McShane receive at least 50 percent of the vote March 3, there will be a runoff in November.
To the reports.
In 2019, McShane outraised Root by almost $100,000, the large majority of his contributions coming from ag interests. The reports filed two weeks ago suggested that McShane might be running out of money soon despite his big fund-raising lead, but he picked up $10,000 from Taylor Farms after the latest report was filed.
Among the most interesting McShane contributions was $3,975 from Margaret Duflock, whose South County family is closely tied to the ag and oil industries, and the JBG law firm, which used to represent ag of all types but now specializes in representing ag of the marijuana variety.
More interesting yet, though, was McShane’s largest contribution of the season, $25,000 from the Monterey County Business Political Action Committee. The PAC is one of several entities under active state investigation for alleged laundering of campaign money and illegal coordination with the campaigns of supervisors John Phillips and Chris Lopez. (John Narigi, treasurer of the PAC, recently received a county contract to run the Laguna Seca Raceway.)
McShane gets contribution from Chevron, despite vow that he will refuse oil money
What’s funny about the PAC contribution is that in the last half of 2019, the PAC reported receiving only one contribution and making only one. The incoming contribution was $14,500 in August from Chevon, the oil company with a big stake in oil production regulation in Monterey County. The outgoing contribution was $25,000 to the McShane campaign in October.
In an email interview, McShane said he was not aware of the Chevron contribution and no reason to think it was intended for him.
“The Business PAC went through an endorsement process that took more than a month,” McShane wrote. “There was a long application that ended up being nearly 10 pages. In the end they endorsed me.
“Regarding Chevron, this is the first I have heard of it. I have refused to take oil, gas and PG&E money.”
McShane’s reports also show contributions from Sturdy Oil but they appear not to violate his pledge because the company is a distributor rather than a producer.
Askew’s campaign forms? Not very interesting. If you belong to the League of Women Voters or the Sierra Club, you’ll likely recognize many of the names. Julie Engell, Beverly Bean, Janet Brennan, Ann Hill, Dan Turner, etc., etc.
Adams, who is unopposed for re-election, shares many of Askew’s contributors but her latest reports show that she has one significant supporter than Askew doesn’t. Pebble Beach resident Valentia Valentine of Synchronicity Holistics gave $5,000.
One other seat is up for filling on March 3 but the only candidate is the District 1 incumbent, Luis Alejo.
The former state Assembly member had a good year financially, raising $103,000 and spending only $26,874, which, on second thought, is kind of a lot considering that he didn’t have a race to run.
Alejo received $1,360 from JRG, the marijuana lawyers, and at least three contributions from marijuana-related businesses, $5,000 from LSB Ventures, $2,500 from ECCA Investments and $1,500 from Kumbaya Farms.
Marijuana ventures have been keenly interested in local politics in California since recreational marijuana was legalized in 2016. Cities and counties decide how and where marijuana growers, shippers, distributors, processors and retailers can operate. They set tax rates, create all sorts of regulations and generally regulate the businesses, at least theoretically. Having friends on the board of supervisors can be a big help. The Monterey County supervisors, for instance, extended a helping hand to the local industry early on by cutting the local production tax rate by more than half.
District 2 Supervisor John Phillips, the retired judge, hasn’t formed a re-election committee and didn’t solicit campaign contributions, from the pot industry or elsewhere, in 2019. In past campaigns, he did receive help from the JRG law firm, however. The FBI is said to be looking into whether any marijuana cash might have seeped into his and other campaigns of 2016.
Finally, in District 3, South County, incumbent Chris Lopez doesn’t face a re-election contest until 2022, but he’s already raising money for that effort and the marijuana industry is helping. That might be partly explained by Lopez’s choice of a campaign manager, Plasha Fielding Will, who recently became a marijuana-industry lobbyist after running primarily Democratic political campaigns for decades. She also ran the Phillips campaign two years ago.
The Kumbaya Farms and LSB (La Selva Beach) Enterprises marijuana businesses each contributed $2,500 to the Lopez campaign while Valentine of Synchronicity Holistics and Sal Alvarez of the Alvarez Brothers pot operation each pitched in $1,000.
The JRG law firm came up with $2,549 for the food at a Lopez fundraiser.
Also interesting, Capitol Consulting contributed $1,000 to Lopez, which seems odd at first blush. Capitol is run by longtime Republican political consultant Brandon Gesicki, an unlikely contributor to a campaign run by consulting business competitor, Plasha Will. But, as it turns out, Will is also a pot lobbyist and Gesicki has also partnered with Aaron Johnson of the JRG team of pot lawyers to pursue the first marijuana dispensary license in Marina.
So there you have it for now. Most of what you need to know about the upcoming local election and some of what you need to know about the intersection of pot and politics in our neighborhood
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