Oakland City Attorney John Russo is recommending that the city raise its campaign donation limits from $600 to $1,200 because there will be only one election this year instead of two. His recommendation is good news for ex-state Senator Don Perata, whose mayoral campaign ended 2009 nearly broke after spending more than $100,000 — primarily on consultants. By contrast, his competitor Jean Quan had nearly $60,000 in the bank as of January 1.
According to reports filed Monday with the City Clerk's Office, Perata raised $115,396 last year, but spent $100,643. His campaign reported $42,818 in cash on hand as of December 31 because of funds left over from 2008, but it also had $28,604 in unpaid debts. In other words, the campaign began the year with a net balance of just $14,754. In addition, Perata spent most of his cash on high-paid consultants, and has yet to mount a direct-mail campaign.
Councilwoman Quan, by contrast, has run a volunteer effort. She raised $66,946 last year, but spent only $7,018. "We're running a grassroots campaign," she said. "We print our own flyers at home. We have no staff. We have all volunteers."
Perata's fortunes could change if the council adopts Russo's recommendation, because the senator has relied heavily on big donors over the years. Perata announced last month that he was abandoning his promise to limit donations to $100. Campaign manager Larry Tramutola did not return a call for comment.
Russo said he received no influence from any candidate or anyone else outside his office. He said it makes sense to raise the limit to $1,200 because under the previous rules, donors could contribute $600 during the primary season and another $600 in the general election. But this year, there will be no primary because of ranked choice voting. "The cap on influence was $1,200 before, and it would be $1,200 now," he said.
But Quan said Russo's recommendation represents "an attempt to go around the Public Ethics Commission," which usually takes up such issues before they go to council. Commission Executive Director Dan Purnell said that the City Attorney's Office talked last fall with the commission but did not recommend raising limits. "Commissioners said that 'if and when a proposal is made, we'll look at it,'" he said.
But Russo said he didn't believe it was his office's role to make a recommendation to the commission, and that it should have done so on its own. He said he decided to go directly to the council because it needs to address the issue quickly in order to clarify the rules for the 2010 campaign season.