By BRETT WILKISON
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Campaign contributions in last year’s Sonoma County supervisors race between David Rabbitt and Pam Torliatt topped $706,000, eclipsing a previous county record of $647,000, campaign finance reports show.
The new record toppled the 2008 mark set by Sharon Wright and Shirlee Zane in their contest for the 3rd District seat, which Zane won.
Unions, environmental groups and business interests poured even more money into the race between Rabbitt and Torliatt. The contest was seen as pivotal, possibly swinging the five-member board toward either a moderate, pro-business majority or a more slow-growth, progressive stance.
“The balance of the board was on people’s minds,” said Brian Sobel, a political consultant and former Petaluma city councilman. He described the race as a “marquee matchup.”
Rabbitt, a single-term Petaluma councilman, nailed down endorsements from business and farming groups. And Torliatt, Petaluma’s mayor and an 18-year veteran of city politics, earned the backing of labor, environmentalists and the Democratic Party.
Suppporters on both sides saw much at stake. “It means people dig a little deeper into their pockets,” Sobel said.
Rabbitt won the race, but Torliatt out-raised and out-spent him. She took in more than $398,000 in contributions and spent $396,000, according to the latest campaign reports. Rabbitt raised $307,000 and spent nearly $303,000.
Combined, the candidates’ hefty campaign coffers reflect the new reality of elections as the cost of media and direct mail advertising continues to rise, political consultants said.
The shift to absentee voting — more than 61 percent of Sonoma County voters now cast their ballots by mail — also has lengthened the campaign season, driving candidates to spend more money earlier, said Terry Price, a Santa Rosa political consultant.
“That’s driven the cost of campaigns up, without a question,” he said.
Campaign contribution limits, which in the supervisors race limited to $2,500 the amount an individual could give during a certain period, have made candidates more aggressive in broadening their donor base, Price said.
“But it’s obviously not stopping the money race in politics,” he said.
Sobel said it was only a matter of time before spending in a county supervisors race tops $1 million.
Spending caps have proven to be unpopular with well-funded candidates and would likely still be ineffective in dealing with the independent groups that can dodge those limits and deliver huge sums, in the form of advertising to help their candidates, experts said.
In the 2nd District race, Rabbitt benefitted when Citizens for Transportation Funding, an independent expenditure committee supported by business and development interests, poured nearly $90,000 into mailers against Torliatt.
The latest spending records for an independent committee supporting Torliatt, Sonoma County Labor, Environmentalists and Democrats for Change, were not available Tuesday. Previous records show the group spent roughly $20,000 on mailers opposing Rabbitt.
The independent money does not measure up to the $255,000 spent by outside groups in the 2008 race between Zane and Wright.
“I would have expected those numbers to be a little closer,” said Stephen Gale, chairman of the Sonoma County Democratic Party.
Materials sent to voters by Citizens For Transportation, which supported Rabbitt, stirred the most debate. They criticized Torliatt for her votes on several land-use and fiscal matters and targeted her for her public comments supporting a sanctuary policy for illegal immigrants.
The latter mailer linked talk of a sanctuary policy in Sonoma County to a 2008 murder of a father and his two sons in San Francisco by an illegal immigrant. Some blamed San Francisco’s sanctuary policy for the slayings.
Torliatt supporters and civil rights activists blasted the mailer as racist, and even a trade union that donated to Citizens For Transportation Funding said it had crossed the line.
Newly released campaign reports show the group paid Steve Rustad, the freelance editorial cartoonist for the Argus-Courier, the Petaluma weekly newspaper, at least $8,250, including the latest payment of $4,325, for campaign literature and mailers sent out by the group.
Rustad was suspended from the newspaper for more than a month late last year for violating the paper’s ethics policies. He declined to say Tuesday what work he had produced for Citizens for Transportation Funding.
Bob Bone, a Santa Rosa attorney and the group’s treasurer, also declined to elaborate on the group’s spending.
“What is spent by independent expenditure committees and to whom that money is paid — I don’t view that as newsworthy as you do,” he said. “I have nothing to add beyond what the law requires.”