More than 95% of the $3.7 million spent in Santa Clara’s 2022 election was by PACs. 88% of that money—$3.3 million—was spent by six San Francisco 49ers PACs. Three of the San Francisco 49ers PACs supported council incumbents Raj Chahal and Karen Hardy, and mayoral candidate Anthony Becker. Three others opposed incumbent mayor Lisa Gillmor and council candidates Larry McCulloch and Christian Pellecchia.
Related Companies PAC took a distant second place, spending $249,000 to support Gillmor. The developer, which holds a 10-year exclusive development agreement for Santa Clara’s former golf course, formed its own PAC this year instead of donating to the police union PAC.
The Santa Clara police union’s developer-funded PAC spent $38,526 — less than 20% of what they spent in the 2018 election, $252,500 — to support Gillmor and attack her opponent. Only two developers donated this year — Turner DevCon and SCS Development — plus the CA Association of Realtors.
The Santa Clara Firefighters PAC spent $28,000 to support Gillmor and council candidates Larry McCulloch and Christian Pellecchia.
PAC Impact Open to Question
There’s been a lot of commentary about the 49ers’ spending, admittedly an extraordinary amount for a city council election in a small city. Virtually all of this commentary followed a journalistically convenient storyline that if billionaires spend money in politics, ipso facto, they control the candidates and the elections.
If anything, the 49ers’ money may have been counterproductive.
Council Members Chahal and Hardy were elected in their first elections in 2018 without any 49ers’ support. Chahal and Hardy were outspent more than 2:1. Hardy held a $3,200 campaign bank and defeated a candidate with a $41,000 war chest. Both Chahal and Hardy opposed building Levi’s Stadium — Hardy led the campaign against Levi’s in 2010.
Both Chahal and Hardy are well-known for their community service over decades and were running against candidates who were unknown and have no known involvement in the council districts they ran in. Reputation, weak opponents running virtually non-existent campaigns, and the advantage of incumbency likely rendered the 49ers’ money irrelevant.
Even worse, the 49ers’ campaign for the two candidates displaced important questions of city policy, making the spending itself the substance of their opponents’ campaigns. Further, the 49ers gave those opponents name recognition that they otherwise would have never had.
Did Grand Jury Elect Gillmor?
In the mayoral campaign, it’s likely that the 49ers’ money did give losing candidate Anthony Backer a name recognition boost. Becker stated publicly that he would have preferred that the 49ers would not spend this money. Again, the spending allowed Gillmor to make the race about the 49ers’ spending instead of about her six-year record as mayor.
That Gillmor — the daughter of one of Santa Clara’s best-known mayors and an incumbent in her sixth term in city office — beat someone in his first term on the city council, isn’t surprising.
What is surprising is how little Becker lost by: 776 votes. When Gillmor ran for mayor in 2018 (she was appointed to serve the remainder of Jamie Matthews’ term in 2016) she won by about 50 points. In November, she won by 2.5 points.
It could be argued that Gillmor had invaluable assistance in her victory from the Santa Clara County Grand Jury. That body chose to publish a report attacking Gillmor’s council opponents the week voters began receiving ballots.
The Mercury News said the report “parroted Gillmor’s narrative of events.” It was described by The Weekly reporter David Alexander as “crafted to give the appearance of wrongdoing without actually alleging it.”
Its targets castigated it for sloppy research and biased conclusions. For example, the grand jury accused the 49ers of denying the city revenue by not booking concerts during the COVID shutdown.
Last year’s election spending was not the most money ever spent in a Santa Clara election — it’s only the second highest. That distinction belongs to the Measure J election in 2010, when the Santa Clarans for Economic Progress committee spent about $6 million to get voters to approve building Levi’s Stadium. That money was donated by the 49ers to the committee headed by Lisa Gillmor.