San Diego’s Mayor and the Political Tradition of Tapping Special Interests through Charity

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San Diego

March 23, 2015;Voice of San Diego

This story belongs in the “I’m shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!” category, because it describes a practice long used by politicians to raise money on behalf of their favorite charities from special interests with ulterior motives.

The Voice of San Diego, a nonprofit cooperative news site, reports on a charity formed by new Republican mayor Kevin Faulconer, who recently headlined a fundraiser that included representatives from some of the city’s largest and most influential business interests.

They were named as partners and event sponsors for One San Diego, created soon after Faulconer took office last year. The website points out that all of them frequently have business interests tied to City Hall decisions, but none of the companies’ donations, nor the amounts, were made public, adding that it’s unlikely they ever will be. That’s because the donations, which are not for campaigns or City Hall lobbying, aren’t subject to the strict disclosure laws that govern elections and lobbying.

“It’s impossible to miss the close ties between One San Diego and the efforts to boost Faulconer’s standing in advance of his re-election bid next year and any future run for higher office. The people who donate to One San Diego certainly know this,” a law professor told the website, adding, “There are always people with interests before the city who are happy to give to civic purposes and also curry favor with elected officials.”

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Last November, Faulconer announced the creation of the nonprofit and the first effort it would support, an afterschool program. Although technically the mayor has nothing to do with One San Diego, it mimics a theme found in much of his campaign literature and speeches. He is not on the charity’s board of directors, which is made of up close allies.

The law dictates that Faulconer only has to make public the donations to the group he himself specifically solicited, which so far amount to $30,000. But donations since it started total about $250,000, and that other $220,000 is subject only to federal regulations governing 501(c)(3)s, which do not require full disclosure of names or amounts.

While One San Diego was created to support low-income communities in the city, Faulconer takes every opportunity to highlight it as indicative of his support for those neighborhoods, such as college-prep centers and laptops in city libraries. It can also use its funds to pay for polls on public policy issues, town hall meetings, and voter information guides. And, it pays consultants with close ties to the mayor and his campaigns to help manage its programs.

The mayor’s wife, Katherine, an event planner, also has a connection to the nonprofit, although not in any official capacity either as a board member or consultant. Her role as an honorary booster of the charity is not dissimilar to those of mayoral wives in other American cities with mayors’ funds, such as New York and Los Angeles.—Larry Kaplan