Arguably the most powerful corporation in San Diego, akin to the public utility octopuses of old, giant Sempra Energy has the political clout to match. But a big part of the electric company's influence isn't always publicly manifest, which is the way the firm is said to like it.
Somewhere in the bowels of its downtown corporate headquarters, executives from Sempra and its state-regulated subsidiary San Diego Gas & Electric make critical decisions on how to distribute the company's trove of political money to best benefit its stockholders. When it comes to city politics, Sempra knows what it wants and, the record shows, usually gets it.
From February of 2013 through this January, employees at Sempra coughed up a total of $29,500, according to a spreadsheet analysis of city campaign-disclosure records. In the mayor's race, GOP winner Kevin Faulconer got $13,500, Republican-turned-Democrat Nathan Fletcher took in $5000, and Democratic city councilman David Alvarez got $450.
The San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce PAC, backing Faulconer, received $7500; the GOP Lincoln Club got $1250, and incumbent Republican city councilwoman Lorie Zapf's reelection campaign got $950.
It was the same over at SDG&E, with Faulconer's mayoral bid getting $7695. The Lincoln Club, which backed Faulconer with hit pieces against his foes, received $2500; the chamber's PAC got $3500; and Zapf received $1400. Alvarez got $1050.
In addition, according to Sempra's latest lobbyist filing, the company's Francisco J. Urtasun threw a Faulconer fundraiser on January 8 that came up with $8625.
And the money hasn't stopped coming.
On April 18, Sempra came up with $10,000 for an outfit called New Majority San Diego, which says on its website that it is "comprised of San Diego's top business leaders, from various industries, who are highly involved in local, state and federal politics. With their far-reaching influence in the economic sectors vital to the region. New Majority Members help set the political priorities for each election cycle."
The group backed Faulconer and has endorsed Zapf and her fellow Republican and downtown lobbyist Chris Cate for city council, as well as Bonnie Dumanis for district attorney. It favors ex-city councilman Carl DeMaio, another Republican, for Congress against incumbent Democrat Scott Peters.
On April 9, Sempra gave another $25,000 to the Chamber PAC. Democrats haven't been entirely left out. Back on March 3, Sempra gave the county party $5000 and kicked in another $2000 on May 1. More Sempra cash is expected to roll in to one side or another, if not both, before next month's elections.
Sempra also has come up with major money to maintain an opinion-molding presence in local media. The company pays U-T San Diego, the newspaper and website owned by real-estate developer Douglas Manchester, an undisclosed amount of money to place so-called sponsored coverage in its "Marketconnect" section, which, according to the paper "is produced with or by the marketer."
According to a recent Sempra-sponsored U-T item, "While providing reliable power for San Diego residents each and every day, San Diego Gas & Electric’s number one priority is the safety of the public." No mention was made of the wildfire controversies the company has faced in the past.
In addition, at least one of the utility's chief influence-peddlers and public-relations executives is known to serve in a nonprofit media position. Eugene “Mitch” Mitchell, chamber of commerce veteran and current vice president of state government affairs for San Diego Gas & Electric and Southern California Gas Co., another Sempra subsidiary, is one of six members on the board of directors of Voice of San Diego, the nonprofit online news and opinion operation co-founded by late Tribune editor Neil Morgan.
According to his bio on SDG&E's website, "Prior to joining SDG&E in 2005, Mitchell served as vice president of public policy and communications at the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce where he worked with the Chamber’s members and diverse volunteer base to develop a public policy agenda that is favorable to the business climate and standard of living in San Diego." The Voice website lists SDG&E as a "community partner."