Campaign Contributions: What Are They Good For?

L.A. County Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich speaks during at the Annual Meeting of the New Champions in Tianjin, China. | Photo: World Economic Forum/Flickr/Creative Commons License

Do you know who your L.A. County Supervisor is? Most people don't. These little known elected officials wield an enormous amount of power, controlling the nation's largest local government.

In Los Angeles County we have five members of the Board of Supervisors. These five individuals represent portions of our 10 million-person county. The number of people residing in one district outnumbers the number of people who live in more than a dozen small states. These powerful politicians face little competition in elections. Incumbents are rarely challenged. It has been more than three decades since an incumbent lost.

So if incumbents face little, if any, competition at the ballot box, do they nonetheless raise campaign funds?

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The answer is a resounding yes. One purpose, the main purpose, of raising campaign funds is to allow candidates to effectively advocate for themselves. Put another way, the idea is that campaign money allows candidates to get their messages to the voters.

But members of the board of supervisors have little need to persuade voters to vote for them, they have no challengers. Yet they -- in particular Don Knabe, Michael D. Antonovich and Mark Ridley-Thomas -- are amassing large campaign war chests, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Who gives campaign contributions to candidates all but guaranteed to win? Not surprisingly those who have business before the county. Knabe, who is running unopposed, has raised more then $350,000 from developers, contractors, and builders, among others. Antonovich has also raised more than $350,000, and much of this campaign cash similarly came from developers and contractors. Ridley-Thomas has outraised both Knabe and Antonovich, raking in almost $450,000.

These numerous and large contributions can serve as a powerful deterrent to any would-be challengers. Those challengers would face an enormous uphill battle.
State law allows campaign funds not needed for campaigning to be used for political, legislative or governmental purposes. Incumbents can therefore essentially use campaign funds to purchase good PR (for instance attending conferences oversees and meeting foreign leaders). Spending campaign funds is one way that officials can try to gain name recognition and let constituents know who they are, and what they do. There is nothing illegal about that. It is, however, one reason that elections are not more competitive.

The depressing part about this situation is that it is nothing unusual. In fact, this is business as usual for most races involving the board of supervisors. If and until we change the way elections are run, the current condition will remain. One change, one which raises other problems, will be implemented in 2016 -- that's when four of the five supervisors will be termed out thanks to a law passed ten years ago.

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