Overqualified, underfunded

The election is still eight months away, but contestants in the 5th Sacramento City Council District are already facing off at a candidate forum in the Florin Road Bingo hall tonight, Thursday, October 29. The 5th includes Curtis Park, Hollywood Park, Oak Park and a lot of other parks besides. It’s a crowded field full of interesting and smart candidates—all vying to replace Councilwoman Lauren Hammond, who is giving up her seat to run for the state Assembly.

The field shows why Sacramento’s campaign finance laws are completely broken.

The race is being dominated early by two pretty well-connected guys—school board member Patrick Kennedy and former school board member Jay Schenirer. Each has a long list of endorsers and donors, and they’ve basically divvied up Sacramento’s political establishment. For example, Kennedy boasts endorsements from Councilwomen Bonnie Pannell and Sandy Sheedy, along with heavy labor support. Schenirer is getting the nod from Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, and most observers expect him to win the endorsement of Mayor Kevin Johnson.

That leaves candidates Kasey Cotulla, Henry Harry and Terrence Johnson. Finance reports from earlier this year showed that Johnson was the only other candidate to raise any money for the campaign, though he was a distant third to the front-runners.

It’s not because Johnson isn’t a worthy candidate. In fact, Johnson’s résumé is pretty darn impressive. Along with his partner Michael Luna, he has run his own business, Visions Window Coverings, in Oak Park for nearly 20 years.

He’s the executive director of the Stockton Boulevard Partnership, and the executive manager of the Oak Park Business Association. He’s the current chairman of the Oak Park Redevelopment Advisory Committee, and the list goes on.

Johnson says he wants to represent the underrepresented neighborhoods and bring “special attention to the south Sacramento community.” You know, the places don’t have quite the political clout of, say, Curtis Park.

“Half of those neighborhoods aren’t represented on the council,” Johnson says.

All of which makes Johnson, in Bites’ opinion, a very interesting candidate, and a perfect candidate for public financing.

There’s about $300,000 in city matching funds, just waiting for qualified city council candidates to use to compete with the big-money campaigns of the incumbents and the anointed. The problem is the public financing rules were written by folks who didn’t have any particular interest making elections more competitive—the incumbents. The public finance rules are confusing, and the money is hard to qualify for. Since it was established in 2003, only one candidate has even attempted to use the system.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Johnson looked at all this, threw up his hands, and walked away from the public finance option. He hopes to run an effective campaign without a professional campaign consultant, and to string together a budget, $50 here, $5 there.

Of course, the current occupants of City Hall could fix the public finance system—perhaps as part of a larger discussion on city charter reform—and level the playing field a bit for well-qualified, underfunded folks like Johnson. Or they could go back to throwing fundraisers for each other and playing Who Leaked the Memo? Hmm, which will they choose?