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  • Writer's pictureNewsmakers with JR

State Realtors PAC Spending Huge Amount on Assembly Race in Bid to Beat Murillo and Bennett

In an extraordinary display of Sacramento special interest spending, the California Association of Realtors political committee has dumped nearly $700,000 so far into hit piece mailers attacking Assembly contenders Cathy Murillo and Steve Bennett, campaign finance documents show.

In the past two weeks alone, the California Real Estate Independent Expenditure Committee, a political arm of the state realtors’ industry organization, has paid for at least 12 attack mailers against Santa Barbara Mayor Murillo and Ventura County Supervisor Bennett – six each, at a cost of $54,775.70 per mailer, plus polling and research to support the effort -- to influence the outcome of next Tuesday's primary election in the 37th Assembly Disrict.

By Election Day, it is likely that the real estate PAC's spending on the Assembly race will eclipse the total amount of campaign expenditures by all seven candidates combined.

The apparent intended beneficiary of the effort is ex-SB council member Jason Dominguez, who has been endorsed by the realtors and is the least liberal of six Democrats seeking the seat being vacated by Monique Limon, who is running for state senate.

"Campaign finance reform -- I've called for it at every debate. I can’t stand this system," Dominguez told Newsmakers. "The Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision opened up the door to this world -- where independent expenditure committees spend money opposing or supporting candidates, and candidates have no control over what they say and how they spend it."

Locals in the dark. At post time, Newsmakers had identified $679,777.30 in expenditures that the real estate industry committee, which did not respond to requests for comment, has made specifically targeting Murillo and Bennett. Among other things, the crude mailers portray them as moldy bread, a chalkmark dead body and a child's doll, while hurling charges accusing them, variously, of corruption or policies that favor gangs and injure families.

Over at the Independent, a member from the Santa Barbara Association of Realtors told Delaney Smith that "the local group has no ties or agreements with the mailers being sent by their parent organization and has little to no knowledge of the substantial amount of money spent on the mailers."

Said Bennett: “The (statewide) real estate PAC has spent a fortune on mailers attacking me because I’m the only candidate endorsed by the Sierra Club, and I won’t let them build anything they want anywhere they want."

The capital's political landscape. The realtors' exercise of raw political muscle, while unprecedented in a local race, is also underway in other legislative districts around the state, a reflection of the current shape of partisan politics in Sacramento.

With Gavin Newsom installed as California's most liberal governor since the Pat Brown era, Democrats also control 90 of the 120 seats in the Legislature. These legislative supermajorities mean that the most crucial fault line is not between their party and Republicans -- but rather between liberal and moderate Democrats.

In a CalMatters piece, headlined “Brace for the deluge: Special interests are spending millions to get the California legislators they want,” political reporter Ben Christopher examined the efforts of business groups, including the realtors, the oil and gas industry and car dealers, along with labor unions, to stockpile members of the two factions:

In the most heated (and expensive) battles for California legislative seats, the key question for big outside spenders isn’t whether to back a Republican or a Democrat — but which kind of Democrat.

It’s a reflection of the Democratic Party’s dominance of state politics in California. For businesses that might have once prioritized the election of Republicans, backing a business-inclined Democrat is now often their best bet for ensuring a friendly vote in Sacramento.

"The goal is to get your particular brand of Democrat to emerge in the run off,'" said David Townsend, who directs the Californians for Jobs and a Strong Economy, a committee that backs moderate Democrats. In races where business interests and organized labor pick different candidates, he said, "it’s an arms race. When one side spends more, you have to spend more.'"

Think statewide, spend locally. The 37th Assembly District, where voter registration favors Democrats over Republicans by a nearly 2-to-1 margin, for more than 20 years has been represented by a series of liberal Santa Barbara representatives, from Hannah Beth Jackson and Pedro Nava to Das Williams and Limon.

In next Tuesday's primary, the top two finishers among the seven candidate field will advance to the November run-off; whatever the primary result, it is all but certain voters in the general election will select a Democrat as their new Assembly member.

So by spending heavily in the Santa Barbara-Ventura Assembly race, the realtors have a rare opportunity for a kind of double win, exchanging the very liberal Limon for a more pro-business Democrat, if they can help craft a top-two primary finish for a moderate next week.

At a time when liberal legislators are actively pushing an agenda of tenant rights, from restrictions on evictions to various forms of rent control, Murillo’s pro-renter record in Santa Barbara has made her a target for the realtors PAC.

“The realtors have been very active protecting their interests when it comes to tenants rights,” Mayor Cathy told Newsmakers. “I have been strong on a Just Cause eviction ordinance and I still want to include better relocation assistance and cash support when a tenant is forced to move through no fault of their own.”

In addition, Murillo supported a statewide measure to allow rent control throughout California and, as a council member and as mayor, voted to crack down on the operation of vacation rentals in Santa Barbara, arguing the practice takes rental housing off the market. She also opposed the real estate industry's successful push to get rid of so-called ZIRs -- Zoning Information Reports, a program that required rigorous home inspections when a house or unit was sold, a regulation realtors found onerous.

“I have been firm about restricting vacation rentals and a lot of realtors manage these properties or sold them as business opportunities,” Murillo said. "The ZIR reports slowed down the sale of a house so the realtors didn’t like that."

Bennett has been targeted in large part because of his staunch support for environmental laws and regulations that have been aimed for years at slowing the sprawl of development in Ventura County, through a series of voter initiatives known as SOAR (Save Open Space and Agricultural Resources.

“The real estate PAC has spent more than $300,000 against me so far and have millions left in their dark money PAC," Bennett said, predicting the mail barrage will continue through Election Day.

In Dominguez, the realtors would have a legislator who has opposed rent control, spoke against the city's Just Cause eviction measure, and who led the way in getting rid of the ZIR program. On the other hand, he also has been a leading critic of Santa Barbara's AUD program, aimed at building more rental housing.

On balance, however, what probably makes him most attractive to business interests is that he is a maverick, who has enraged Democratic leaders locally for staking out independent stances on a host of issues that conflict with that of the party.

The realtors committee is prohibited by law from overt cooperation with the campaign of Dominguez, who said he has no knowledge of its operations, and whose own committee has reported only about $20,000 in contributions this year.

"If it were up to me I would do things differently, but I can’t control what they do," he said of the real estate industry's backdoor support. "In short, this system stinks and I’ll do everything I can to get money out of our politics, and I am the only one who has called for campaign finance reform at every debate and opportunity.

"I’ll be an independent voice fighting for the people I serve," he added.

Images: Real estate industry hit piece mailer attacking Cathy Murillo; Steve Bennett hit piece; Anti-Cathy mailer; Anti-Bennett mailer; Cathy Murillo; Jason Dominguez.

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