Chasing the money trail all the way to the statehouse

Despite the weak economy, some cities and neighborhoods are able to generate cash for the six major candidates competing for the three top elected jobs in California — and that money is vital for them to keep television ads roaring and political machines running.

For the two candidates for governor, Attorney General Jerry Brown and former eBay Inc. CEO Meg Whitman, their home bases of San Francisco and San Mateo County are like two competing banks battling to invest in the future leader of the nation’s richest state.

Brown, a Democrat, has so far amassed $1.4 million more in San Francisco than Whitman, while Whitman, a Republican, has outearned Brown by about $2 million in her home county. That excludes the $119 million of Whitman’s own money poured into her campaign.

“You may look at Meg Whitman and say she’s put all her own money into this campaign, but that overshadows the fact that her campaign has actually gone out and done a pretty great job of raising money as well,” said Bill Whalen, a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.

But Whitman’s money has come in enormous chunks from wealthy individuals near her power base. In her hometown of Atherton, which has just more than 7,000 people, donations have almost hit the $1 million mark as of the most recent reporting period ending Sept. 30.

Brown, on the other hand, has taken in more small donations than Whitman, something that is significant for turning out voters, according to political consultant David Latterman.

“You have to look at the tail of the monster, where all the small stuff is, not the big body,” Latterman said.

District Attorney Kamala Harris has also excelled in bringing in smaller donations from a larger base. Harris is in a tough race for attorney general against Los Angeles District Attorney Steve Cooley, who has a $374,000 fundraising edge over The City’s top prosecutor. Harris has raised $1.8 million in San Francisco and San Mateo counties alone.

San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom holds a slight lead over his rival, Abel Maldonado, in the polls for lieutenant governor, and he maintains a sizable edge in fundraising, having brought in about $2.5 million to Maldonado’s $1.4 million.

Newsom has tapped into the base that elected him as both a supervisor and a mayor. University of San Francisco political science professor Corey Cook calls it “Marina money,” referring to District 2, which includes Pacific Heights and the Marina. Newsom has raised about $200,000 from those two ZIP codes alone.

But even in his traditional power base, Newsom has been outshined by Harris. The attorney general candidate has taken in $634,000 more than Newsom in San Francisco and more than three times as much in San Mateo County.

That knack for bringing in campaign cash will come in handy if Harris loses the race and decides to run for mayor in 2011.

“People are saying that if she doesn’t win this thing, she can just stroll into the Mayor’s Office,” Cook said.

Looking at campaign finances by ZIP code or community shows where financial support comes from and to whom. Places where the money is still flowing shows which individuals have survived the recession, the Hoover Institution’s Whalen said.

“Money is tight in California for this election cycle,” Whalen said. “It’s a combination of the recession and the way the recession has hit California. Who has the resources in these tough times to cough up a campaign contribution?”

This is the first recent election in which corporations and other large organizations can make donations and fund campaign efforts for a candidate separate from the candidate’s campaign.

Barbara O’Connor, an expert in politics and media at Sacramento State University, said that new paradigm will dramatically change the political landscape.

“You don’t have any disclosure where the money’s coming from, and it will only get worse,” O’Connor said, adding that California has some of the strictest disclosure requirements in the country.

Millions of dollars are needed to feed a political advertising beast — a barrage of ads on the airwaves that will only increase as the election nears.

One thing the political experts agreed on is that the vast majority of the money being given to political candidates will eventually go to television commercials.

“It’s amazing how California has become like a presidential race,” Cook said. “There’s no point in going door to door unless you’ve got a TV camera following you.”

O’Connor questions the idea that all this money should be funneled into television ads when the face of media is changing so rapidly.

“It’s not the same game as it was 20 years ago,” she said. “Younger people are not watching networks as much as they used to. It’s very difficult to predict where people are watching now.”

Meg Whitman

56, Republican and the former CEO of eBay

City total: $1.4 million

Statewide total: $119.1 million

Cash on hand: $9.2 million

Jerry Brown

72, Democrat and California attorney general; Brown served two terms as governor in the 1970s and ’80s

City total: $2.8 million

Statewide total: $28.9 million

Cash on hand: $22.6 million

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