City elections in San Diego are regulated by the San Diego Ethics Commission. Considered an unnecessarily aggressive local agency by most election lawyers, the Ethics Commission heavily regulates politics in the City. San Diego has added additional rules to the statewide requirements under the Fair Political Practices Commission, which are enforced by the Ethics Commission, and both agencies usually end up having simultaneous jurisdiction over election campaign issues there, sometimes causing legal fees to skyrocket. Unique to San Diego and in addition to the state election requirements of disclosure of contributions and expenditures, and criminal rules administered by the District Attorney and Attorney General, are rules that regulate the use of personal funds, imposition of personal responsibility for campaign debt, limit campaign contributions to just $500, outlaw contributions from “business entities”, allow the Commission to conduct its own “audits,” and regulates all independent expenditures of $1,000 or more. The San Diego law is so oppressive of expressive rights protected by the First Amendment that some of the provisions of the law have been enjoined as unconstitutional during the pendency of a case known as Thalheimer v. City of San Diego. The case however has not stopped the Ethics Commission from continuing its aggressive view of the election process in the City.
With all that in mind, nonpartisan Mayoral candidate Carl DeMaio, a Republican, turned the agency into a political football in the opposite direction at a televised debate yesterday when he asked opponent, Assemblyman Nathan Fletcher, who recently re-registered independent after losing the endorsement of the local party to DeMaio, “Are you currently under investigation for an ethics violation and, if so, what is the nature of the investigation and the violation you are alleged to have conducted?” It was a “when did you stop beating your wife” type of question. The question was surely a rhetorical one, as a complaint had been filed by DeMaio himself and dismissed against Fletcher the prior Wednesday. Fletcher responded, “As usual, Carl, your facts are off. We’re not under any investigation by the Ethics Commission. But I do find it ironic that you would ask a question about transparency given, after you were fined by that Ethics Commission for breaking campaign-finance laws, you tried to defund them.”
The complaint was essentially a campaign tactic by DeMaio claiming that Fletcher had used funds from his separate Assembly account, regulated by the FPPC, to help his Mayoral race, regulated primarily by the Ethics Commission but also by the FPPC. The FPPC had determined that whatever the complaint was, that Fletcher was “in substantial compliance with state law.”
The San Diego campaign finance contributions are ridiculously low. San Diego is one of the largest cities in the state, even the nation, and the idea that contributions need to be limited to $500 for “ethics” purposes is preposterous, and only works to lessen the ability of a candidate for Mayor or City Council to control their own campaign and communications with voters, as the lack of funding it creates to be able to conduct a complete campaign in such a large city leaves candidates at the mercy of union and corporate special interests who have more funding to be able to influence the process. DeMaio is partially right – the Ethics Commission should see some funding reductions, and hopefully the Thalheimer litigation will lead to reforms that improve the ability of candidates to “speak for themselves.” But DeMaio’s complaint was a cheap shot at Fletcher and at a time of record gasoline prices, unemployment, and a troubled economy, one would think Mayoral candidates would be focused on issues that have a more immediate impact on their constituents rather than the inside view of campaign finance.