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Lessons from the 2018 election: District Elections Validated, Money Still Leads At-Large Races

In Santa Clara’s first municipal election with by-district City Council seats, the results speak clearly: Single member City Council districts enable grassroots candidates to fight effectively against big-money candidates, and bring new faces into City government.

Two Council candidates — Nancy Biagini and Srivinasan Sambathkumar —lost despite having the biggest war chests, spending the most per vote in the election, $33.35 and $30.18 respectively.

In the at-large races for Mayor and City Clerk, the presumed winners were the candidates with the biggest campaign treasuries and spending, but there were other significant factors in those races that likely had more impact on the results than money.

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Voters Prefer Neighbors They Know to Unknowns With Piles of Cash

In the City’s new Council Districts, Raj Chahal (District 2) and Karen Hardy (District 3) — people with personal histories of active engagement in the Santa Clara community and schools, including service on the Planning Commission and previous unsuccessful City Council runs — beat two unknowns backed by gray money PACs and building trades union interests.

Despite being outspent more than 2:1, Chahal became Santa Clara’s first minority City Council Member with 54 percent of the vote in a three-way race. His campaign had a total of $24,800 in donations and $315 in independent expenditures for a total of $25,100 in total financial impact.

Chahal’s opponent Nancy Biagini has the distinction of being the biggest spender this year in combined donations and independent expenditures for the election: $59,000. Biagini garnered almost $38,000 in independent expenditures from the developer-financed Santa Clara Police Association PAC and the AFL-CIO COPE PAC — two of whose funders include PG&E and the Santa Clara County corrections officers PAC.

In District 3 the contrast is even starker between Hardy’s treasury and that of her opponent Srivinasan Sambathkumar, aka Sam Kumar.

Hardy won decisively with the largest winning percentage of the vote in a Council race — 71 percent — with a campaign budget of $3,200 that was dwarfed by that of her opponent.

Sambanthkumar, who has said that he lives in Santa Clara on the weekends, garnered $10,000 from the same AFL-CIO PAC backing Biagini. With the PAC donation, $2,400 in other donations and $29,000 in loans to himself, Sambathkumar piled up a $41,000 war chest — giving him a money advantage of almost 13:1.

 

Money Wins Citywide In Lop-Sided Race and Crowd of Candidates

Citywide, candidate for Mayor Gillmor beat challenger Anthony Becker with almost 75 percent, a win that also benefitted not just from money, but also from a well-known name and a challenger with no experience in elected office.

Gillmor’s campaign bank totaled $54,000 in developer and union money donated directly and spent by the PACs backing Biagini, making Gillmor’s the second largest war chest this year.

Becker’s donations totaled $9,900, and he was the intended beneficiary of an $11,000 Chamber of Commerce PAC independent expenditure opposing Gillmor. Even including that spending, Becker was still outspent almost 3:1.

The City Clerk’s five-way race powerfully illustrates the problem with plurality elections and the effectiveness of putting your name on the ballot as a campaign strategy — for the current election or future races.

One very well known candidate — Parks & Recreation Commissioner Roseann La Coursiere — took third place with 17 percent of the vote despite running no campaign whatsoever. La Coursiere lost a 2014 race for Council.

Another non-campaigning candidate got 13 percent of the vote. That was Christopher Stampolis, a one-time Democratic Party politico and a former Santa Clara Unified Board Member whose tenure was distinguished by the principal of his son’s school getting a restraining order against him. Stampolis has run in at least two previous elections.

Winner Hosam Haggag* — with $15,700 in donations and $12,700 in expenditures by the police PAC, all totaling $28,400 — garnered 25 percent of the vote. Outspent by Haggag by slightly under 2:1, second place runner-up Bob O’Keefe’s campaign, with 24 percent of the vote, benefitted from $15,400 in spending, almost three-quarters of it by the police PAC.

Haggag was an energetic campaigner and unlike O’Keefe, has been a regular presence at public meetings.

It’s likely that 2018’s results won’t be lost on those considering runs in the City’s remaining four districts in 2020.

However, with three sitting Council Members able to run for re-election in 2020 — the City’s term limits law only applies to elections in 2016 and forward — incumbency will likely be a factor in three of the district seats up for election in 2020.

It remains to be seen how Santa Clara’s entrenched incumbents will fare in 2020.

Santa Clara isn’t the only place change is happening. The Mercury News reports that several Bay Area cities saw similar results in their first by-district elections.

To see the rest of the details of 2018’s money race, read the Weekly’s last pre-election roundup of campaign finances. This report uses updated number from financial reports filed since the election.

*Ballots for the City Clerk are still being counted — 99 percent of votes have been counted. As of press time, Hosam Haggag was leading by approximately 500 votes.

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