ENCINITAS — Big money campaigning, once reserved for national and statewide elections, has been making its way to local levels over the past few years.
By-in large, however, special district and small school board races have bucked the trend.
Locally, however, the largess of a single campaign contributor to two candidates in the Encinitas Union School District election has raised eyebrows — and questions.
Jacob Stern, a CEO of an insurance marketing firm who represents Mission Estancia Elementary on the Encinitas Educational Foundation board, contributed $10,000 to both Anne-Katherine Pingree and Leslie Schneider. The contributions were made earlier this year.
To put the contributions in perspective, the other two challengers in the race, Rimga Viskanta and current board member Patricia Sinay, have raised just over $17,000 combined.
Most donors have contributed small amounts to candidates. A review of the other contributions in the race show that most donors contributed $100 to the four campaigns. The second largest contribution amount seen in the finance reports was $1,000.
Both Pingree and Schneider, who have run similar campaigns calling for increased board transparency and fiscal responsibility, said they were appreciative of Stern’s contributions.
“I believe people give to my campaign because they believe as I do: we need board members who will listen and be responsive to community concerns,” Pingree said. “I appreciate every contribution and am honored by the community support I am receiving. All my contributions to date have come from individuals — community members, friends and family.”
Stern said he contributed to the pair because he shared Pingree and Schneider’s concerns of the state of the district, which he said has misplaced priorities.
“Anne-Katherine and Leslie both demonstrated fiscal responsibility and the willingness to question the actions of the superintendent,” Stern said. “As a person who sits on boards and reports to board of directors, I know Anne-Katherine and Leslie will ask questions to the managers and superintendent at EUSD instead of always voting yes and never questioning anything.”
Schneider said that Stern only represented a fraction of the support they have received, when you include campaign volunteers, those who have placed signs on their lawns and other forms of support.
“I am very grateful that we have a tremendously caring and supportive group of parents… who realized that like I did, the only way to hope for change is to be a part of that change,” Schneider said. “I am fortunate that we all were able to get together and combine our efforts. Everybody gives what they can. My job that I found myself called to do was to be the candidate, others have waved signs, and others are blessed with treasures they can share with us.
“Jacob and his wife have been able to support us monetarily, but we have a lot of supporters in a lot of different areas,” Schneider said.
But Stern’s contributions have raised a number of questions from opponents, and experts say that it sets a dangerous precedent in smaller down-ballot races.
Viskanta, who has raised a little over $5,000 over the course of the race, said that such contributions unfairly tilt elections to the recipient’s favor.
“Money wins elections, and when you have that much money, it’s more money to advertise, buy signs and get your name out in front of people,” Viskanta said. “It’s basically like you are buying the election, and makes it hard for someone to get the word out in more traditional venues.”
“You also have to wonder what’s the motivation of making such a large donation,” she said.
Stern said that from his perspective, the donation pales in comparison to amounts he has donated to the educational foundation and the district’s parent-teacher association over the years.
“You’ll be surprised to learn how much our family has contributed to our school over time,” Stern said.
Encinitas Educational Foundation treasurer Jay Bell said the foundation doesn’t keep records of philanthropy by individuals.
Carl Luna, a political science professor with the University of San Diego, said he is concerned about the precedent such a donation would create in future races.
“The problem with a single person making such large contributions, effectively becoming the only significant donor for a candidate, is that the ‘public’ elected official has been partially privatized,” Luna said.
“If you are very wealthy $10k is a) not a huge amount when compared to the car you drive or the house you own; and b) is going to give you a much bigger footprint in a local race than in a state or national race,” Luna continued. “If this becomes the new normal you’ll see all manner of elected boards (and possibly judgeships — many states are dealing with the impact of big money on judicial impartiality) at least appearing to be more beholden to a handful of deep pockets further eroding public trust in government. This is ‘checkbook democracy’ at the grass roots level.”
Schneider scoffed at the mention of “checkbook democracy,” pointing to the fact that both Viskanta and Sinay received endorsements from Encinitas’ teachers union, Teachers of Encinitas.
“We have had one backer versus an entire union supporting the other candidates,” Schneider said. “I think that (checkbook democracy statement) is very grandiose.”
Teachers of Encinitas President Leslie O’Keefe said that aside from the endorsement, the union’s support of Viskanta and Sinay has been nominal; a $300 contribution for both candidates.
“That is very misleading…They do not have the purse and volunteer support of teachers at their disposal,” O’Keefe said of Schneider’s statement. “We sponsored a forum for all four candidates last month. The donation of $300 hardly compares to the $10,000 donation.”
Viskanta said if elected she would support campaign contribution limits, which the Encinitas Union School District currently doesn’t have.
“If one person asks to contribute that much to your campaign, of course it is tempting (to accept),” Viskanta said. “But the way to remove that temptation is to pass reforms at the board level.”