By Joe Livernois
Money was spent, votes were cast, the numbers were crunched and Wendy Root Askew will soon be Monterey County’s newest supervisor.
And, boy, was money ever spent. During the two-year period in which committees existed to support campaigns for Root Askew and Steve McShane in District 4, more than $1.4 million was collected and spent.
In fairness, the campaign was a two-election cycle after neither Root Askew nor McShane could muster at least 50 percent of the vote in a March primary that attracted four candidates, forcing the two-person runoff on Nov. 3.
In the end, McShane spent about $43 for each of the 23,084 votes he received during the two elections, for a total nearing $1 million. That’s $43 per voter to lose an election.
And that’s compared to the $16 that Root Askew’s campaign collected and spent for each of the 27,119 votes for her candidacy this year. In other words, she spent less than half of what McShane spent and skated to an easy victory.
And she won it without the name recognition that McShane had developed during his very public political ventures over the past decade. McShane is a Salinas City Council member and his name is still affixed to a landscape supply business along the busy Highway 68 corridor between Salinas and Monterey. By contrast, Root Askew is a relatively low-key and part-time aide to Supervisor Jane Parker, who she will now replace on the Board of Supervisors. She is also a member of the Monterey Peninsula Unified School District board, which has never really been a springboard to higher political office.
Neither candidate seemed very interested in talking about the money that went into the campaign. McShane didn’t respond to an email, and Root Askew said only that she looks forward to serving her constituency. “I’m just excited to be able to get back to doing ‘the work’ of serving my community,” she said.
The extraordinary amount of money spent during the campaign reflects the importance of the position and the unique configuration of the district. The 4th District is the only supervisorial district that straddles the so-called Lettuce Curtain separating the Salinas Valley and the Monterey Peninsula. It includes South Salinas, all of Marina and Seaside, and everything in between.
Three of the other four supervisorial districts represent cities and interests in the Salinas Valley and North Monterey County, while only the 5th District represents the Monterey Peninsula exclusively. Generally speaking, the occupant of the 4th District seat is important to business interests in the Salinas Valley that hope to secure friendly votes against the more environmental and restrictive land-use interests represented by voters on the Monterey Peninsula.
“It will always be the most hotly contested, and agribusiness will pour hundreds of thousands (of dollars) into it,” said Tyler Burrola, a local political activist.
But one of the original candidates during the primary election, Alex Miller of Seaside, called the amount of money spent on the campaign “outrageous.” He said he and Wini Chambliss, the fourth candidate, spent a total of about $20,000. “We couldn’t compete,” he said. Miller and Chambliss finished the primary with a combined 20 percent of the vote.
With two different constituencies — Salinas Valley and Monterey Peninsula — “it really takes a lot of money because the messages are different,” Miller said. He noted that no candidate from Salinas has ever won the 4th District seat. He also said that big-money interests from outside the district have undue influence on the election.
“I really think that we need a limit on campaign contributions for county supervisor, like our neighbor county has,” Miller said.
Santa Cruz County has imposed a $500 cap on donors to campaigns during any election cycle. In that county, incumbent 1st District Supervisor John Leopold lost a reelection bid this month to Manu Koenig, a newcomer to politics and a transportation activist. With the contribution cap, the two of them collected and spent about $320,000 in that race. Koenig emerged victorious even after being outspent by Leopold by about $30,000.
And Monterey’s City Council election this year operated under the restrictions of contribution limits of $500. Each of the incumbents in that election was reelected.
Aurelio Salazar Jr., a Hartnell College trustee and a keen observer of all things political, noted that the District 4 seat has almost always had roughly the same election result — 52 percent to 48 percent — always favoring the Monterey Peninsula candidate.
“Several of us have been watching this seat for over the last twenty years and the election results have not changed whatsoever,” he wrote in response to an inquiry on Facebook. “I think that regardless of how much money you throw at this seat, the election result will never change. There are clearly two solid voting blocks that have voted the same way over the last twenty years.”
Salazar said that political subdivisions will soon be reconfigured, following the results of the U.S. Census, so it should be interesting to watch how that supervisorial district changes between now and the next election. “(It’s) time to keep a close eye on these next couple of redistrict committees,” he said.
According to financial disclosure statements during the final financial reporting period before the Nov. 3 election, statements that track campaign giving and spending during a one-month period ending Oct. 17, McShane’s campaign received at least $75,000 from agricultural interests in the Salinas Valley. That total represents more than half of all the contributions he received during that period. Root Askew raised only $72,000 total during the same period. Her largest six-figure contributions came from Democrat and progressive clubs in Monterey County.
During the 2020 calendar year alone, McShane raised more than $650,000, compared to the $267,000 Root Askew received.
According to the latest semi-official report from the Monterey County Registrar of Voters’ office, Root Askew won 18,409 votes in the general election, while McShane picked up 16,396.
Correction: An earlier version of this story erroneously reported that Manu Koenig outspent John Leopold in the District 1 Supervisor’s race in Santa Cruz County. In fact, Leopold spent about $30,000 more to hold on to the position than Koenig.
Have something to say about this story? Send us a letter or leave a comment below.