LocationAlhambra , CA United States
Campaign donations for local races in Alhambra could be limited if a proposed measure on the 2020 ballot passes. But this year there are no such restrictions, so candidates during this election cycle are raising thousands of dollars to attract voters on Nov. 6.
Every candidate running for the City Council’s three open seats has expressed support for limits on the amount that one person can donate to a campaign. Political action committees would also be subject to this rule, said Sean McMorris*, a member of Grassroots Alhambra, a local non-profit that pioneered this ballot measure.
Suzi Dunkel-Soto, who’s running for the Alhambra City Council’s 5th district seat, has benefitted from several PACs spending money on her behalf. Dunkel-Soto, who identifies herself as a businesswoman in her campaign materials, works in the real estate industry.
Dunkel-Soto has raised $23,991 in campaign donations, according to documents filed at Alhambra City Hall on Oct. 26, 2018. A portion totaling $9,000 comes from the California Real Estate PAC.
In addition, documents filed on Oct. 3 show the Chicago, Ill.-based National Real Estate PAC spending $28,473.73 on online ads for Dunkel-Soto. Records also show that the National Association of Realtors Fund spent $13,048.73, mainly for campaign mailers for Dunkel-Soto. This organization has a history of such spending, putting millions of dollars towards a Congressional race in 2012 for California’s 31st District in San Bernardino County.
Dunkel-Soto said that CREPAC donated to support her dedication to the organization over the years. “They’re returning the investment of my time and my belief as a leader,” she said. She said that she had no involvement in the National Real Estate PAC’s campaigning on her behalf and guessed that they did this because of her involvement in the association’s leadership academy.
“It’s a reinvestment of what I’ve given to them, as a leader and a volunteer,” she said, adding that neither organization has special interests in Alhambra and that their support wouldn’t compromise her independence when it comes to approving developments or other measures.
“The decisions I make will be based on the info provided — research and reports and what’s allowed by law,” she said.
A local committee has also been formed to support Dunkel-Soto and Laura Tellez-Gagliano, former superintendent of the Alhambra Unified School District who’s running for the 1st District. An organization, Alhambrans United to Preserve Our Neighborhoods by Electing Dr. Laura Tellez-Gagliano and Suzi Dunkel-Soto to the Alhambra City Council 2018, has spent $31,570.76 on their behalf, including on a mailer that painted City Council candidates Adele Andrade-Stadler, Katherine Lee and Andrea Lofthouse-Quesada in a negative light.
Tellez-Gagliano said that the Alhambrans United group formed without her knowledge and that she did not endorse the campaign mailer. “That wasn’t something I would’ve put out at all,” she said. “I trust that people who know me would knows I wouldn’t do that.”
Dunkel-Soto said that she was “shocked and surprised” when she saw the mailer, but didn’t find it particularly negative. “I don’t think it was put up to put her in an unfair light,” she said, referring to her opponent Adele Andrade-Stadler.
Andrade-Stadler, a member of the Alhambra Unified School Board, raised $33,106 in campaign donations, including $5,000 from the Alhambra Teaches Association PAC, which endorsed her.
“Some people say teachers are special interests, but they’re special, not special interests, because what students need is important to them,” said Andrade-Stadler about ATA’s donation, which she said was mainly going to her mailers. She added that she was trying to spend as much of the money she received as possible and is open to donating the remaining dollars to a non-profit.
Julian Reyes, a broadcast journalist and another candidate running for the 5th District, has yet to raise any money, according to the paperwork he’s filed.
This isn’t in the first time that PACs have participated in Alhambra city campaigns. In 2014, a Long Beach-based PAC sent out mailers on retiring City Councilmember Stephen Sham’s behalf, based on his support of finishing the 710 freeway.
PACs that work independently of candidates would not be subject to campaign spending limits if Grassroots Alhambra’s ballot measure is passed, said McMorris.
Denis Kerechuk, who’s listed on campaign finance forms as treasurer of Alhambrans United, could not be reached for comment.
Outside of the organization campaigning on her and Dunkel-Soto’s behalf, Tellez-Gagliano has raised $10,308 , according to paperwork filed on Oct. 20. She has also loaned herself $11,000 over the course of the campaign. One of her opponents for the 1st District, Katherine Lee, a teacher at Repetto Elementary School in the Alhambra Unified School District, has mainly self-funded the $18,200 cost for her campaign, while also accepting a $2,000 donation from the Alhambra Teachers Association PAC, which has also endorsed her run.
“I don’t want to be bound by any individual interests at all,” Lee said, adding that she accepted the ATA’s donation and endorsement because their interests already aligned. “It was within my budget to self-fund.”
First district candidate Andrea Lofthouse-Quesada, also a teacher, campaigned on a pledge to only accept donations of no more than $250 and has raised $4,239 as of Oct. 20, as well as $3,200 in loans from her father Paul Lofthouse and from herself.
She has however accepted a donation from Eric Sunada**, a former council candidate and currently a board member of Alhambra Source of $1,024.
Lofthouse-Quesada had no qualms about taking that amount of money from Sunada, who is also her campaign manager and treasurer. “Knowing who Eric is and that he’s run before should give people a sense of the shared values he and I have,” she said, adding that her main issue would be with taking money from those with ties to the city.
“Both Eric and my dad have no financial interest in this city, which was my big concern,” she said. “I wouldn’t be in a position to compromise my core values to negotiate between the city and all its stakeholders.”
She said that she would give back any leftover money after the election.
Ross Maza, a real estate broker, who is running unopposed for the 2nd District, has accepted one large donation of $1,392 from retiring City Councilmember Barbara Messina. Messina’s donation would not affect how he makes city decisions, he said.
“I will always be independent, regardless of what people donate.”
*Sean McMorris has contributed to the Alhambra Source.
**Eric Sunada is a member of the Alhambra Source Advisory Board and the founder of Grassroots Alhambra.
An earlier version of this story misattributed a statement that independent PAC spending could increase the amount of campaign money floating into Alhambra if a ballot measure setting campaign spending limits is approved. That line has been removed.
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