Houston, we've got a problem

Assemblyman Guy Houston's transfer of more than $100,000 of mostly labor union donations from two state campaign committees into his Contra Costa (CA) supervisor account is fueling talk of local election finance reform. County Supervisor John Gioia will ask his board colleagues later this month to pass a law that would cap such transfers at $25,000 per election. "It's a bait and switch," Gioia said. "You're telling contributors that you are running for one office but spending the money on another. Donors deserve to know what race they are supporting."

The local use of dollars collected for a partisan state office is unfair to the other candidates and it heightens the influence of Sacramento-style politics in local races, Gioia said.

"I don't want to see a county supervisor elected whose allegiance is largely to broad, special interest groups from outside the county," Gioia said.

Houston's campaign associates said they won't comment until they see what Gioia has in mind.

A cap may not even be legal, said Bob Stern, director of the Institute of Governmental Studies.

"It's a legitimate campaign issue, but the legal question is, 'Can you stop it?' and I think the answer is probably no," Stern said. "As long as the candidate complies with the contribution limits for the race, I don't think the county can restrict it."

Regardless, it's too late to stop Houston's switcharoo. He moved the money Dec. 31.

But Gioia said if the cap passes muster with the board, he will ask the assemblyman to abide by the "spirit" of the ordinance.

NO CHECK FOR YOU: Gioia may want to check in with Orinda Realtor Clark Wallace before he makes that call.

Wallace has asked Houston twice in writing since August to refund his $100 contribution to one of the assemblyman's state accounts that was later transferred to the supervisor fund. Wallace said he would never have given Houston the money if he had known the legislator planned to use it to run against incumbent Supervisor Mary Piepho.

"I haven't heard a word from him," Wallace said. "Now, I'm doubly offended."

There's apparently no need to take it personally, Mr. Wallace. Houston's campaign said the lawmaker's policy is not to return contributions.

OOPS: Policy or no policy, Houston may have no choice but to ship back the bucks he collected from political action committees.

The county caps total political action committee contributions at $40,000 per election cycle, and Houston exceeded the limit by $3,850 in his last campaign finance report.

Houston's campaign said it will recheck the figures and will comply with county law.

HEY, NO FAIR! Two key questions come to mind in this debate:

Is it fair for a state legislator with greater access to donations to sweep into a local contest and overrun candidates with outside money?

Or it is wrong to punish a candidate for being a successful fundraiser?

Houston undeniably outraised Piepho, even without the transfer. He reported $187,796 in contributions as of Dec. 31, with a quarter of the money coming from donors with Contra Costa addresses.

Of the total, $108,300 came from his 2006 Assembly campaign and his 2010 Board of Equalization account. Houston said he's not running for the Board of Equalization. He is one of several legislators who opened board accounts to raise money. It's a legal but dubious practice.

Houston's contributor list is a disparate group ranging from labor unions ($19,900) to nonunion contractors ($1,000), the development and construction industry ($72,175), banking interests ($12,000) and American Indian gaming ($6,025).

By comparison, Piepho raised about $18,000. Almost two-thirds of her money came from donors within the county.

But Piepho also voluntarily limited her contributor pool. Since her 2004 campaign, she has refused to take union, homebuilder or refinery money in order to avoid any hint of quid pro quo.

Money helps, but it by no means guarantees a victory. We'll find out Election Day which candidate's strategy paid off.


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