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Who's Funding Who? Our New Databases Let You Explore L.A. Political Money

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L.A. City Hall. | Photo: Michael Smith/Flickr/Creative Commons License

Most all contributions to a political candidate or ballot initiative in California are supposed to be made public -- and, for the most part, they are. But that doesn't mean a citizen can easily access or understand such public documents.

For example, visit the State of California's Cal-Access website to see early fundraising for Governor Jerry Brown's 2014 gubernatorial campaign and you'll be prompted with eight sets of data. If you just wanted to see who donated to the campaign, finding it -- and making sense of it -- without a tutorial may not be an easy task. That's why in the 2012 election, to great success, Ballot Brief created funding databases for each side of the 11 propositions on the November ballot. Take the funding of Prop 37: In a manner of seconds, a visitor can easily start drilling down to see who was funding the yes and no campaigns.

With the 2013 Los Angeles elections, we wanted to expand upon the toolset we could bring to the public. Today, we present the first iteration of funding for candidates in the races that make up the March 5 and May 21 ballots.

On the 2013 election homepage, you can find all the races, each with the combined totals, contributions (with a breakdown of direct and matching funding), and expenditures for each candidate.


Click on "Inside the Race" and you'll end up on a race homepage. Let's take the crowded race for Council District 13. At the top of the data visualization, we give you the totals in contributions, matching funds, and expenditures. Scroll down and you can see a quick summary for each candidate.


Here's where it gets interesting. Click on "Show Me the Money" for any of the candidates to see exactly who is donating directly to each candidate and how that candidate is spending campaign funds. For example, we'll take Mitch O'Farrell, who recently received the endorsement of the Los Angeles Times.


As you can see, his $137,000 raised between contributions and matching funds is only 8 percent of the total raised among the many candidates vying for this office.

Scroll below this visualization and you'll find a searchable database of all contributions. Click on a heading to sort (by Contributor, Employer, etc.) or use the search box to filter the results based on information in any of the columns. Because I'm always curious which city employees are donating to a potential future boss of theirs, the screenshot below is of a query for "city of los angeles," sorted by donation amount.


Here you'll notice that city council member and mayoral candidate Jan Perry has donated, as well as a number of employees from around the city, including at least two who have worked for Councilmember Tom LaBonge, who represents a neighboring district.

But after seeing this, I was curious about Matt Szabo, former and longtime aide to Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. Who from City Hall has donated to this well-connected fellow?


Immediately, I see donations from some high-powered City Hall types like Bud Ovrum, general manager of the Department of Building and Safety, and Torie Osburn, a deputy mayor in the Villaraigosa administration.

Heading back to the O'Farrell example, I also find it interesting to see what locals are donating to a campaign; typing in a variety of zip codes within Council District 13 shows me just that (what immediately popped out to me were the local restaurant owners from Taix, Mohawk Bend, and Masa). And searching for my zip code (I live outside the district in Studio City), I was able to find a neighbor, figuratively speaking, interested in this race.

Scrolling even further below, we now find ourselves at campaign expenditures, where you can see how each candidate is spending his or her money. It can get a little wonky here, with all the consultants and credit card fees, but for me personally, I enjoy looking at how much a campaign is spending locally vs. out of the region or state (but to be fair, some services might not be found locally and sometimes local work may be paid to a company headquartered elsewhere).


As I said earlier, this is only a first iteration. Campaign finance data is dirty as data can get. The more you dig in, the more you find inconsistencies with people who have donated more than once, or with people who have the same employer. For example, above I wrote about searching for employees from the "City of Los Angeles." Well, because there is no law governing how the names of people and businesses are represented (say, unique codes to identify a registered business), you also get some who list their employer as "The City of LA" (or "The City of L.A." with the periods), making it more difficult for a casual visitor to find patterns.

It gets worse with the legal industry, where one can be listed as a lawyer for one donation and then a prosecutor on another. And a firm might get listed as "ABC Law, LLC" or "ABC Law LLC" (no comma) in two different instances. We're working on ways to refine this data for future updates.

We also want to expand this project with additional tools and data sets. For now, we want to hear from you, especially regarding these two items:

  1. What are you finding in this data? Whatever you dig up, send it to us and it might be incorporated into a story on Ballot Brief or in our investigative newsmagazine "SoCal Connected."
  2. How can we improve this project? Let us know.
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