History was repeating itself. What happened in 2002, and before that, in 2000, was happening again. Big bucks began to show up in San Diego. Much of this money came from wealthy out-of-towners. Where this money went was to the campaigns of three San Diego Unified school-board candidates. The money arrived in five- and six-figure contributions to campaign committees with names like that of the Marin County-based "Independent Committee to Support Local Schools" and the "San Diego Lincoln Club." These committees had no apparent ties to the candidates. Many mailings and radio ads didn't even mention the candidates. Instead, they attacked their opponents. "Our Children Can't Afford Mitz Lee on Our School Board!" read a piece sent by the "Independent Committee to Support Local Schools." "Mitz Lee says she wants to buy out the Superintendent's contract early -- at a cost of nearly $400,000! That's a lot of money to pay a person not to work! The last thing our school board needs is Mitz Lee and her financial mismanagement." Spots featuring Republican district attorney Bonnie Dumanis aired on the radio, courtesy of the GOP's Lincoln Club, praising Lee's opponent, chamber of commerce favorite Miyo Ellen Reff. Reff also was backed by the AFL-CIO's San Diego labor council, which is often allied with the chamber on growth, construction, and possible development of vacant school property. The labor council spent $26,000 on Reff's behalf.
It was much the same for two other board candidates endorsed by the chamber: Ben Hueso, a city redevelopment manager and longtime friend and associate of San Diego city councilman Ralph Inzunza, and Sharon Whitehurst-Payne, a member of the city's Southeastern San Diego Development Corp. She was defeated by former schoolteacher and Navy medic, Shelia Jackson, who did not enjoy establishment support and was vastly outspent.
Hueso, who was endorsed by the three-member school-board majority that favored Bersin, benefited from at least $35,650 in mailings paid for by the Independent Committee for School Reform, according to official disclosure filings. Much of that expenditure was funded by a $35,000 loan to the committee from Mel Katz, a temporary-employment firm owner with close ties to outgoing board member Ron Ottinger. Hueso also received at least $10,000 in support from the AFL-CIO's San Diego Labor Council.
Hueso's opponent, Luis Acle, a conservative Republican and former official in the Reagan administration, also received support from the Lincoln Club, but the $2800 that the group spent in mailers on his behalf was small compared to the $131,000 total the club lavished on behalf of its favorites, Reff and Whitehurst-Payne. Thirty thousand dollars of that came from a last-minute contribution by billionaire John Walton, an heir to the Wal-Mart fortune and a charter-school advocate who lives in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.
The Independent Committee for Local Schools is a "paper" committee run out of the Mill Valley offices of Vigo "Chip" Nielsen, a lawyer who specializes in setting up and servicing campaign-finance committees for Republican causes. San Diego's Lincoln Club, a group of wealthy Republicans, has evolved into a cash conduit for donors who want to shield their identity from the public. The so-called independent expenditures of the political committees also allow big-money donors to avoid the district's $500-per-person limit on contributions to school-board races.
For her part, Whitehurst-Payne got at least $118,000 in support of her campaign from the San Diego Education Association, the teachers' union, which endorsed her candidacy. She also had the advantage of at least $32,000 in radio commercials purchased by the Lincoln Club.
Who else was putting up the big bucks, and what were their motives? As mail hit doorsteps in early November, campaign disclosure statements revealed a familiar story with a cast known to those who have followed the six-year saga of Alan Bersin and the San Diego Chamber of Commerce's attempts to take over the school board.
At the top of the list is Eli Broad, a Los Angeles billionaire who made his fortune building houses and in the insurance business. According to campaign filings, on October 25, Broad contributed $45,000 to the Independent Committee to Support Local Schools; the contribution was earmarked to defeat Mitz Lee. Broad's close friend and political ally, Richard Riordan, the ex-Los Angeles mayor who now serves as education secretary to Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, gave $5000.
A champion of public school "reform," Democrat Broad, a longtime Bersin ally, has a history of hiding his financial support of the superintendent's efforts to retool the school district.
Broad's involvement in San Diego school politics dates back to summer and fall 2000, when Padres owner John Moores (along with Moores's partner, downtown real estate mogul Malin Burnham) and Qualcomm founder Irwin Jacobs spent more than $720,000 on a campaign of television spots attacking Democratic board incumbent Frances Zimmerman and her opposition to Bersin's policies.
The commercials opened with a shot of students walking down a hallway. A photograph of a frowning Zimmerman was superimposed on the image while a male baritone voice intoned, "School board member Fran Zimmerman is leading the fight against San Diego's back-to-basics reform plan." After listing a series of Zimmerman's anti-Bersin votes, the voice concluded, "Tell Fran Zimmerman to stop voting against back-to-basics school reform. Because it's working."
To avoid identifying itself in the ads, the Moores group used a federal "527" political committee that called itself "the Partnership for Student Achievement," formed as a conduit for the funds. The only way to discover who paid for the campaign was to obtain the 527 filings from the Federal Election Commission in Washington, D.C.
Broad's efforts to avoid identification with the campaign went further. Records reveal his plan to escape detection involved two foundations from the East Coast, which gave a total of $157,000 to the anti-Zimmerman effort: $100,000 from Essential Information, Inc., of Washington, D.C., and $57,000 from Public Interest Projects of New York.
The two tax-exempt organizations seemed unlikely sources of such money. Founded in 1982, Essential Information was run by Russell Mokhiber, a then-46-year-old veteran of '60s and '70s left-wing politics who'd made a career of bashing America's corporate culture.