NEWS

Campaign Funding in Silicon Valley: Spotlight on Mountain View

Bergen Smith, Hamsini Sridharan, Laura Curlin | April 16, 2020

This report is the fourth in a series of analyses from MapLight exploring the influence of money on politics in cities in Silicon Valley. See also our work in San Jose, Daly City, and Palo Alto.

Introduction

As the birthplace of the first semiconductor company and now home to Google headquarters, Mountain View, California, has become an expensive city in which to live. However, unlike in its similarly sized Silicon Valley neighbor, Palo Alto, where running for city council is a costly endeavor, in Mountain View, candidates for city council do not have to raise large sums to compete. In 2018, the average elected candidate in Mountain View raised just $23,000, less than half of the $63,000 brought in by the average elected Palo Alto city council candidate that year. A key difference between the two cities is that Mountain View has voluntary spending limits in its city council races, to which all candidates in 2016 and 2018 adhered. Therefore, high fundraising numbers did not necessarily translate into electoral success, with most candidates raising nearly identical amounts.

While the voluntary spending limit disincentivizes excessive fundraising in Mountain View, this does not mean that fundraising is evenly distributed among residents, or that outside influences and special interests do not play a role in local elections. Even without the burden of having to raise massive sums, only about 40 percent of the money given by individuals came from residents of Mountain View. More than half of all the money raised came from corporations, political committees, and individual donors outside Mountain View.

Key Findings:

  • Small donors represented a sizable portion of campaign funding. Donors giving less than $100 contributed a total of $61,000, comprising 18 percent of campaign fundraising. 
  • More money came from individual donors outside Mountain View. Individual donors living outside Mountain View contributed $92,200 to candidates’ campaigns, compared to just $70,200 from city residents.
  • Large donors remained a key element of political fundraising. In 2016 and 2018, about 50 individual donors, giving $500 or more apiece, provided more than 20 percent of all funding to city council candidates.
  • Independent expenditures played a considerable role. The $15,900 spent by the California Apartment Association to support John Inks’ 2018 campaign was more than 60 percent of the voluntary spending limit for candidates’ campaigns.
  • Corporations and unions contributed a sizable amount. Over the two elections, corporations gave $33,800 to city council candidates, and unions contributed $28,600, together comprising 19 percent of campaign fundraising.
  • The largest per capita contribution came from the zip code with the greatest proportion of white residents and highest median income in Mountain View. Residents from the 94041 zip code, which has the highest median household income and the highest proportion of white residents in Mountain View, contributed the most money per person.
  • Most top donors came from the real estate and technology industries. More than half of the 10 largest donors in each election came from these two industries. 

Election Summary

Of the seven citywide council seats in Mountain View, four were up for election in November 2016, with eight candidates running for office. Two councilmembers, Chris Clark and John McAlister, ran for reelection, with two other council members, John Inks and Mike Kasperzak, reaching their term limits. Both incumbents won reelection, but received fewer votes than Lisa Matichak, who previously ran unsuccessfully in 2014, and Margaret Abe-Koga, who served on the council from 2007 to 2015. The other four candidates were Lucas Ramirez, Greg Coladonato, Thida Cornes, and Kacey Carpenter. Ramirez was the first runner-up, falling shy of election by 650 votes.

Three city council seats were up for election in 2018. Two incumbent council members, Pat Showalter and Lenny Siegel, ran for reelection, with councilmember Ken Rosenberg opting out of a reelection campaign. The incumbents were joined by four challengers: former mayor and councilmember John Inks, Lucas Ramirez (the first runner-up in 2016), and two additional candidates, Alison Hicks and Ellen Kamei. Three of the candidates (Ramirez, Hicks, and Kamei) had never before served on the city council; after a close race, all three were elected. The two incumbents and the former council member all failed to garner enough votes to secure election.

Total Contributions

Mountain View established a voluntary campaign spending limit in 2000. In 2016 and 2018, all city council candidates chose to adhere to the spending limit, which was set at $24,073 in 2016 and $25,539 in 2018. The limit was originally set at $15,000 in 2000, subject to an increase of 3 percent per year. Participating candidates receive a small benefit: they only have to pay $500 of the estimated $2,000 to have their candidate statement printed in the voter information pamphlet, with the city covering the rest. This report focuses on fundraising rather than spending, but agreeing to the spending limit disincentivized candidates from raising much more than $25,000 due to the reduced utility of contributions beyond this limit. Candidates raised up to $17,700 in excess of the spending limit, which they saved for future campaigns or contributed to other candidates and ballot measures.

Table 1: 2016 City Council Election

The eight candidates for office in 2016 raised $196,200 altogether. The biggest fundraiser was incumbent John McAlister, who raised $36,800 and was re-elected, though he received the least votes of any council member elected that year. Five other candidates raised between $26,300 and $31,100, each raising enough to spend up to the $24,000 voluntary limit. Only Coladonato and Carpenter were unable to spend up to the limit, raising $12,000 and $2,100 respectively. 

Table 2: 2018 City Council Election

The six city council candidates running in 2018 brought in a total of $138,600. The biggest fundraiser was Ellen Kamei, who raised $31,300 and also received the most votes. While Kamei slightly outraised her opponents, three others (Ramirez, Showalter, and Inks) each raised enough money to spend up to the $25,000 voluntary limit. Those four candidates took in an average of $27,600. Two candidates raised noticeably less: Alison Hicks and Lenny Siegel. Hicks, who managed to receive more votes than either incumbent, raised just $11,700 for her campaign. Siegel, one of those incumbents who was not reelected, raised $16,400. 

Raising more money than opponents did not necessarily ensure a candidate’s victory, largely a result of all candidates consenting to the spending limit. For instance, in 2016, while McAlister outraised all his opponents and was elected to a second term, his spending was roughly equal to that of five of his opponents. It is likely fundraising did make a difference for Coladonato, Carpenter, Hicks, and Siegel, whose smaller fundraising totals kept them from spending up to the voluntary limit, though Hicks’s campaign was still ultimately successful.

Sources of Funding

There are four private funding sources that candidates can pursue when raising money for their campaigns: corporate contributions, political committees and other organizations, self-funding, and individual donors. While there was a voluntary spending limit, there are no contribution limits in Mountain View to constrain the amount a donor can give to a candidate’s campaign, so some donors gave up to $4,000 to a single candidate. In addition, individuals and organizations can make independent expenditures to support or oppose candidates, so long as they are not directly coordinated with candidates’ campaigns.

Figure 1: Sources of Funding for 2016 Candidates

Figure 2: Sources of Funding for 2018 Candidates

Corporate Contributions

City council candidates raised a total of $22,400 from companies in 2016, 12 percent of their total receipts. Incumbent John McAlister, the largest fundraiser of the cycle, raised $9,600 from these donors — more than any other candidate. These contributions comprised 26 percent of his overall funding and included sizable donations from real estate firms Prometheus Real Estate Group ($4,000) and The Sobrato Organization ($1,000). At the other end, Lucas Ramirez received just $800 in corporate contributions, while Greg Coladonato and Kacey Carpenter did not receive any.

Candidates raised far less from corporations in 2018, taking in only $10,300 altogether. Ninety-one percent of these contributions ($9,400) went to John Inks, accounting for 36 percent of his fundraising. Again the largest contributors were real estate firms, including Delmonico Apartments ($2,500) and Washington Square ($1,400). In comparison, neither Lenny Siegel nor Lucas Ramirez received any money from organizations or companies, and no other candidate received more than $500 from these contributors. 

Political Committees and Organizations

Three types of political committees and organizations contributed to the city council candidates: unions, trade associations, and other political groups. In both elections, unions were the most generous, giving $16,500 to 2016 candidates and $12,200 to 2018 candidates — approximately 8 percent of the fundraising in each election. The largest union donor in 2016 was the Mountain View Firefighters, which gave $1,500 to each winning candidate (Matichak, Abe-Koga, Clark, and McAlister). In 2018, the local firefighter union only spent $2,300, all backing Ellen Kamei’s campaign. They were outspent in 2018 by the local IBEW union, which gave $1,000 to Kamei and $750 each to Showalter and Siegel. Winning candidates were more likely to receive union support, with two-thirds of union contributions between both elections going to successful candidates. 

Trade associations contributed a considerable amount in 2016, but heavily curtailed their spending in the following election. Only two trade associations donated to campaigns in either election, the California Realtors Association and the California Apartment Association. Together, these two groups contributed at least $2,500 to each of the four winning candidates in 2016 and slightly less ($1,500) to Thida Cornes’ campaign — $13,000 overall. Trade association contributions to the winning candidates in 2016 comprised 9 percent of their total funding. A drop in trade association money followed in 2018, as the same two groups gave just $2,000 to John Inks and $500 to Ellen Kamei. 

Other political committees and organizations contributed $4,400 in 2016 and $4,100 in 2018. The most generous groups were the Democratic Activists for Women Now ($1,500), Mountain View Housing Council ($1,300), and U.S. House Rep. Anna Eshoo’s campaign ($1,100). These three groups were responsible for nearly half of the money coming from the remaining political committees and organizations. During 2016, Margaret Abe-Koga received the most from these donors ($2,300), including the $1,100 from Eshoo’s campaign and $500 from the Democratic Activists for Women Now. Ellen Kamei, the largest recipient in 2018, took in more than $2,400 from seven different political committees.

Candidate Contributions and Loans

Candidates’ own contributions and loans to their campaigns represented a sizable portion of fundraising. In 2016, candidates gave $23,200 to their own campaigns, with nearly all of this money coming from Chris Clark and Greg Coladonato. Clark loaned $10,000 to his campaign in 2016, which remained unrepaid through the end of 2019. This loan represented 36 percent of his funding during his successful reelection campaign. Coladonato spent $9,800 of his own money on his campaign, which comprised 82 percent of his comparably smaller fundraising total.

Only $2,800 was given by candidates to their own campaigns during the 2018 election. Alison Hicks and Pat Showalter gave the most, each contributing about $1,000 of their own money. Neither Ellen Kamei nor John Inks contributed any of their own money towards their candidacies.

Individual Donors

The majority of money raised by candidates in Mountain View came from individual donors. During the 2016 election, candidates received $116,700 from these donors — about 60 percent of all funding that election cycle. This total fell slightly in 2018 to $106,700, but the proportion of money coming from individual donors rose to 77 percent. These amounts include $61,000 over both elections (18 percent of all contributions) that came from donors who gave less than under $100, which candidates are only required to report as a lump sum.

Of the $162,400 contributed by individuals giving $100 or more to candidates over the two elections, only $70,200 can be traced to Mountain View residents — 21 percent of all the money received by candidates. More money from individual donors came from outside Mountain View ($92,200) than from city residents. Non-resident contributions primarily came from other Bay Area cities, including Palo Alto ($11,700), San Francisco ($8,900) and San Jose ($8,800), but contributions also came from Mechanicsville, VA ($1,000), Davis, CA ($850), and New York, NY ($800). Winning candidates received less hometown support than runners-up did, with winners receiving 17 percent of their funding from residents, compared to 26 percent for runners-up. 

Interestingly, Ellen Kamei secured just $1,800 from resident donors, which comprised just 6 percent of her fundraising, only slightly more than the $1,500 she received from out-of-state donors. Lucas Ramirez received the most money from residents in both elections. In 2016, he took in $9,100 from residents, receiving 35 percent of his money from individuals in Mountain View. In 2018, he surpassed his own prior total, bringing in $11,800 from city residents, 45 percent of his funding that cycle.

Independent Expenditures

The majority of money spent in the city council race came from candidates’ official campaigns. However, other interested parties did make independent expenditures to support specific candidates. In 2016, the South Bay AFL-CIO Labor Council spent $8,100 supporting Lisa Matichek, Lucas Ramirez, Thida Cornes, and Margaret Abe-Koga. They spent considerably less in 2018, just $2,600, this time opposing the election of John Inks. The California Apartment Association also made independent expenditures in 2018, but with the opposite goal, spending $15,900 supporting John Inks. The $15,900 spent by the California Apartment Association was more than 60 percent of the voluntary spending limit for candidates, a significant financial boost, but not enough to buoy Inks’ candidacy, as he ended the election with the fewest votes. Even though independent expenditures did not determine the results in 2016 and 2018, they could play a significant role in future elections.

Zip Code Analysis

Figure 3: Contributions by Zip Code

In both elections, the largest per capita contribution from individual donors came from the 94041 zip code, which also has the highest median household income and the highest proportion of white residents in Mountain View (both by a narrow margin). On the opposite side, the smallest per capita contributions in both elections came from the 94043 zip code, which has the lowest median income in Mountain View. 

Donor Size

Mountain View candidates received more of their funding from individuals giving in smaller amounts than those shelling out $500 or more. Small donors, those donors giving less than $100 in an election cycle, contributed a total of $61,200 across both elections, providing 18 percent of all the money candidates raised. Donors giving between $100 and $500 in a cycle gave a total of $90,600, which comprised 27 percent of all contributions. Finally, large donors, those contributing more $500 or more in an election cycle, donated $71,500 to campaigns, 21 percent of candidate funding. 

Figure 4: Average Contributions to 2016 and 2018 Candidates by Donor Size

Though large donors did not make up the majority of candidate fundraising, about 50 individuals in each election were responsible for more than one-fifth of all the money raised. In 2016, 50 large donors gave an average $808 apiece. The average contribution from large donors fell to $676 in 2018, coming from 46 individuals. 

The candidate who received the most support from deep-pocketed donors was John McAlister, who took in $12,000 — a third of his funding — from individual contributors cutting checks for at least $500. In 2018 Alison Hicks received less from large donors, $6,600, but because her fundraising total was also far smaller, this sum comprised 56 percent of her fundraising.

Donors contributing less than $100 made up a sizable portion of the contributions candidates received. These donors comprised 17 percent of all contributions in 2016 and 20 percent in 2018. The largest recipient of contributions under $100 was John Inks, whose 2018 campaign brought in $7,400 from these donors — more than the $6,600 he brought in from people donating in increments of $100 or more. Alison Hicks brought in the least from these donors, less than $800, which comprised just 7 percent of her campaign funds. 

Top Contributors

By aggregating contributions made by organizations and their employees across all candidates, we can identify the largest contributors in both elections. The top 10 contributors in 2016 contributed more than $42,300 — 22 percent of all campaign funding in the election.

Table 3: Top Contributors in the 2016 Election

Top contributors favored winning candidates; 81 percent of all money from the top contributors went to successful candidates. Two winning candidates, John McAlister and Chris Clark, received significantly more than other candidates from the top 10 contributors. McAlister received $14,000 from the top contributors, 38 percent of his fundraising. This total included $4,000 from the Prometheus Real Estate Group, the largest contribution from a single donor to one candidate during either election. Clark took in $10,000 from the top contributors, 36 percent of his campaign cash. Clark’s funding included a $2,500 donation from Sam Altman, former President of Y Combinator, the largest donation from any individual donor to a candidate in either election. 

Table 4: Top Contributors in the 2018 Election

The top 10 contributors in 2018 gave significantly less than in 2016: just $22,000, or 16 percent of all money raised. Winning candidates received less than half of the money given by top contributors, taking in $10,300, while runners-up received $11,700. John Inks received the most money from the top contributors ($7,000) as well as the largest proportion — 27 percent of his money came from these donors. Included in his receipts were $2,500 from Delmonico Apartments and $2,000 from Tod Spieker, the owner and operator of 2,900 multifamily housing units, primarily in Santa Clara and San Mateo counties.

More than half of the 10 largest donors in each election came from two industries: real estate and technology. Real estate companies and associations within the top 10 contributors gave $20,000 in 2016 and $9,000 in 2018. These donations comprised 10 percent of all fundraising in 2016 and 6 percent in 2018 — in addition to the $15,900 the California Apartment Association spent independently supporting John Ink’s 2018 campaign. Technology companies within the top 10 contributors gave $8,500 in 2016 and $6,400 in 2018. The contributions came primarily from Google and Apple, two of the region’s largest employers. A quarter of the technology industry contributions came from a single Google employee, Deb Henigson, who serves as the Director of Real Estate and Workplace Services. She gave a total of $3,700 to various candidates over both elections.

Conclusion

Largely the result of across the board acceptance of the voluntary spending cap — which was likely due to local political culture — candidates for city council in Mountain View did not raise huge amounts of money. More than $750,000 was contributed to candidates in neighboring Palo Alto during the 2016 and 2018 elections, compared to just $335,000 given to Mountain View candidates over the same period. This suggests that the voluntary spending cap successfully limited the impact of large campaign chests. However, it did not diminish the fact that contributions came primarily from a small group of individuals and organizations.

Methodology

Campaign records were gathered on January 23, 2020 from the most recently amended filings available via Mountain View’s public information portal. Candidates’ total contributions include monetary and non-monetary contributions received between January 1st of the year before the November election until December 31st of the election year as well as any loans (all from the candidates themselves) that were forgiven or were still outstanding at the date of publication.

Unique contributors were estimated by grouping contributions by first name, last name, and zip code. All discussions of resident contributors are based on whether a donor had a Mountain View address. Discussions of zip code demographics utilized the 2016, and 2018 American Community Survey estimates of the corresponding zip code tabulation areas. The zip codes included in the analysis of Mountain View zip codes are 94040, 94041, and 94043. Maps which include contributions by zip codes are based on the outlines of 2010 U.S. census zip code tabulation areas.

Acknowledgments 

This report was made possible with support from the Silicon Valley Community Foundation.

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