For weeks, it looked as if Councilwoman Rebecca Kaplan's campaign for mayor of Oakland might not have enough money for a traditional last-minute advertising blitz. But then last week, Hollywood film producer Bryan Zuriff pumped $148,000 into a new committee that formed to support Kaplan's candidacy, campaign finance records show.
The new committee was created by Oakland Port Commissioner Michael Lighty and the California Nurses Association, which also has reported spending $66,000 on Kaplan's behalf. The $214,000 in eleventh-hour expenditures supporting Kaplan represented the only major outside expenditures for a mayoral candidate in the race other than ex-senator Don Perata.
The new large expenditures were designed to boost a late Kaplan surge in what looked to be a close election. It also was an indication that the nurses' union believes Kaplan has a legitimate shot at winning. The union's other major efforts this year were on behalf of Jerry Brown and Barbara Boxer. The new spending also helped Kaplan get her message out, because she had not been able to raise as much money as Councilwoman Jean Quan, who flooded Oakland with mailers in recent weeks. As for Perata, he outspent all the candidates by a huge margin.
The California Nurses Association, itself, reported spending $51,000 on a mailer for Kaplan. The nurses' union then donated $15,000 to a new committee it set up with Lighty called Citizens for Rebecca Kaplan for Oakland Mayor 2010. Zuriff, whose film credits include the Academy Award-nominated film, The Messenger, donated his $148,000 to that committee. The committee paid for ads touting Kaplan's candidacy and attempted to position her as the alternative to Perata and Quan.
Zuriff, who works with well-known Hollywood film and TV producer Mark Gordon, did not return a phone calls seeking comment for this story, which first appeared last week on the Express' web site. Consequently, it's unclear why he decided to spend so much money on Kaplan's behalf. State records show that Zuriff is not a big financial player in California politics.
Like Kaplan, Lighty is a prominent member of Oakland's gay and lesbian community and he's a former longtime member of the city's planning commission. If elected, Kaplan would be the first openly lesbian mayor of a large California city.
Lighty, however, directed inquiries about the new Kaplan committee to Martha Kuhl, a board member of the nurses' union. Kuhl, a nurse at Children's Hospital, said the union decided to endorse Kaplan, set up the committee, and make expenditures on her behalf after interviewing her. Kuhl said Kaplan is committed to setting progressive public health policies in the city. Kuhl, however, could not provide insight into why Zuriff was funding the new committee.
As for Kaplan, she said she had never heard of Zuriff before last week. She also said she did not coordinate with Lighty, the nurses' union, or Zuriff. Doing so would have been illegal under state and local laws. Still, her campaign clearly appeared excited about the last-minute spending.
The new committee, however, wasn't the only one reporting large expenditures on behalf of a mayoral candidate in the days before the election. Coalition for a Safer California, a Sacramento group with close ties to Perata, reported spending $55,000 on a new round of TV ads on his behalf, along with $26,000 on a new mailer, touting Perata's candidacy and attacking Quan. The group later put out another hit-piece on Quan, pushing its total spending on behalf of Perata over the $240,000 mark. Overall, committees supporting Perata spent well over $1 million trying to get him elected, smashing previous Oakland campaign expenditure records.
Oakland Council Cash
Last-minute cash also was injected into the contest to replace Quan on the council. Records show that Joe O'Donoghue of the influential San Francisco Residential Builders Association poured $47,500 into the Oakland City Council District 4 race in an attempt to elect political newcomer Jill Broadhurst.
As this newspaper first reported on its web site last week, O'Donoghue funneled the substantial donation through the local landlord group, Alameda Rental Housing Association of Northern Alameda County, which then sent out several mailers, touting Broadhurst's candidacy. But several Oakland sources say there was an alternative motive for the influx of cash — bad blood between O'Donoghue's friend and business associate Carlos Plazola and Broadhurst's competitor Libby Schaaf.
Plazola and Schaaf used to work side-by-side as aides for Councilman Ignacio De La Fuente, but several knowledgeable sources say they never got along. Plazola has been known over the years for his ethically questionable dealings, while Schaaf has a reputation for being a straight shooter. And now that Plazola is a lobbyist for developers, he might have difficulty getting face-time with Schaaf if she were to win. Plazola endorsed Broadhurst.
In addition, at least one of the O'Donoghue-financed mailers took a swipe at Schaaf. The mailer didn't mention her by name, but it accused a competitor of Broadhurst's as being beholden to the existing power structure. "In City Hall, Insiders and Politicians Are Supporting One of Their Own for Council District 4," the mailer read. The reference obviously referred to Schaaf because she was the only candidate in the race who had worked at Oakland City Hall, having also served as an aide to the city council and to former Mayor Jerry Brown. She also has been endorsed by several council members, including De La Fuente.
In an interview, Schaaf declined to comment on her rocky relationship with Plazola. But she said Plazola knows from working with her that she'll be an "independent" vote on the council. "He knows that I have Oakland's best interests at heart, and that I'll do what I think is best for the city." As for O'Donoghue, she said, "I think it's disappointing that a single San Francisco developer is manipulating Oakland's campaign finance rules to try to influence the outcome of the election."
Neither Plazola nor O'Donoghue returned phone calls seeking comment for this story. The two are friends and worked together on a proposed 42-story condo tower on Lake Merritt, known as the Emerald Views. O'Donoghue is friends with the project's sponsor and Plazola was their lobbyist. In addition, it's unclear why O'Donoghue would have injected himself in such a big way in an Oakland City Council race when he has not done so in the past — unless it was to help Plazola.
Sources said the other possibility is that O'Donoghue and Plazola might have been worried that even though Schaaf is generally pro-development, she may turn out to be like Councilwoman Pat Kernighan. Kernighan had been expected to be a sure vote for developers when first elected. Kernighan also has questions about the Emerald Views project. Plazola and O'Donoghue will need all the votes they can muster to win approval of the controversial development.
As for Broadhurst, she also did not respond to a request for comment. But sources said they have no reason to believe that Broadhurst made a quid pro quo with Plazola or O'Donoghue. Instead, it appears as if they believed they'd have a better shot with her than with Schaaf.
Schaaf, meanwhile, also benefitted from a mailer that was sent by the Alameda County Democratic Party but was apparently financed by the Oakland Chamber of Commerce's political committee, OakPAC. The last-minute expenditure wasn't reported to the Oakland City Clerk's Office as required by law.
Chevron poured $1 million into Richmond political races in an effort to elect or reelect three candidates who have been a consistent vote for the oil giant over the years — Nat Bates, Maria Viramontes, and Ludmyrna Lopez. And local card clubs spent at least $119,000 in support of politicians who opposed the giant Point Molate Casino proposal and against those who favored it. ... A political group with close ties to Perata used $25,000 in donations it received from the owners of the Oakland A's to help finance two hit-pieces against Quan. Perata has no plans to fight the A's planned to move to San Jose, but Quan said she would.