Barking at big money

City council candidate Ali Cooper says top-dollar donors wield too much influence at City Hall

City council candidate Ali Cooper is doing something pretty unusual in Sacramento politics. He is taking on the corrupting influence of money in City Hall. That’s probably why big-money interests like developer groups, the Sacramento Metro Chamber and Wal-Mart are spending unusually large amounts of money to defeat him.

When Cooper knocks on voters’ doors in Curtis Park or Oak Park or South Land Park Hills or City Farms, he launches into an energetic rap about how City Hall caters to the interests of the wealthy and well-connected over the interests of working people, taxpayers and neighborhoods. He is, after all, a professional organizer, who left his job as political director at SEIU Local 1000 to campaign full time. He can be intense. Some surely find his style, and his message, grating. Bites happens to think he’s right.

Cooper’s opponent, District 5 incumbent Jay Schenirer, is bright and creative. But he has marinated himself in special-interest money for the last four years, and it shows.

Bites has written before about Schenirer’s taste for Wal-Mart corporation money, the self-dealing way he uses his Way Up nonprofit organization to solicit donations from wealthy interests in order to burnish his own political “brand.” It’s a trick he learned from his friend Mayor Kevin Johnson. And it’s corrosive.

At a recent election forum in Curtis Park, Cooper went after Schenirer on these shady “behests,” to the point where the nice League of Women Voters lady politely reminded Cooper that it wasn’t that kind of debate. But we need to have that kind of debate.

Cooper wants to prohibit council members from soliciting donations for their own nonprofits from people and businesses that have business before the council. “It’s an enormous temptation to take money for their private ventures on the side, while they’re making policy. We’ve got to end the pay-to-play culture at City Hall,” he said.

He’s also speaking out against the rigged arena process. “We had tens of thousands of people sign a petition asking for a vote on the arena,” Cooper said. Indeed, a public vote on sports subsidies had been policy on the books at City Hall for the last two decades. Schenirer and his colleagues ignored that policy and went to extraordinary lengths to deny the public a vote. Schenirer got elected in part by opposing the giveaway of city-owned parcels to would-be arena developers. Now, he supports the giveaway of millions worth of city land, with no requirements on the developers who are taking it.

Schenirer pushed to scrap economic studies for big-box stores like Wal-Mart, thus hiding information from the public about the effects of mega-retailers on local business. He supports Johnson’s “strong mayor” plan—a winner-take-all system that consolidates power into the hands of Sacramento’s moneyed interests.

So, no surprise that in the last couple of weeks Schenirer’s patrons have dumped $88,000, so far, into an independent-expenditure committee to help hold on to his seat. That’s on top of the 4-to-1 fundraising advantage Schenirer already had, comparing the candidates’ campaign committees.

The special I.E. committee includes money for polling and cable-TV ads—unusual if not unprecedented in a council race. The biggest contributors to the I.E. include arena developer Mark Friedman, developer group Region Builders, the sheet-metal workers union and the Wal-Mart Stores Inc. headquartered Bentonville, Ark. Campaign-finance laws require Schenirer to avoid direct involvement with the I.E. But it’s not hard to draw a line between this money and his votes. And it suggests those patrons are getting a little worried.

Because Cooper wants to push City Hall in an entirely different direction, or at least that’s what he says. And no one will be watching more closely than Bites to see if he follows through.

Cooper argues for tighter rules on political cash. That includes reforming the behest system, and putting some caps on independent expenditures—including business and labor groups. “Right now, there are no limits on how much special interests can pour into campaigns,” he said.

Instead of simply giving away public property to arena developers, Cooper wants strong community-benefits agreements in place, like those in other California cities that have approved stadiums. And he wants guarantees from the developers about that ancillary development on all that property we’re giving them.

Instead of strong mayor, Cooper thinks we should look at neighborhood councils, like the ones currently operating in San Diego and Los Angeles. “It’s a much more structured and formal way that neighborhoods can exercise some authority over key decisions.”

Are neighborhood councils a good idea? Maybe. They are one of several ideas for broadening and sharing political power more widely, rather than concentrating it into fewer, wealthier hands. Ideas like that are unusual around Sacramento lately. Cooper is an unusual candidate. And the big-money donors and insiders at City Hall don’t like it.