Strict limits on campaign contributions imposed by voters nearly three decades ago are crumbling in the Los Angeles mayor’s race, with big donors using loosely regulated “super PACs” to help candidates like never before in a citywide election, a Times analysis has found. Of the $17.5 million collected so far to support mayoral hopefuls Wendy Greuel and Eric Garcetti, roughly one-third — a record $6.1 million — has gone into independent political action committees that can accept contributions of any size. The rise of the parallel campaign finance system, awash in five- and six-figure donations that dwarf the limits approved by voters, has watchdogs of political influence sounding alarms.
“This is not the system that the reformers envisioned,” said Benjamin Bycel, who was executive director of the city’s Ethics Commission in the 1990s. The surge in independent campaign spending, he said, “essentially guts” laws setting contribution limits.
Many of the outsized PAC donations come from interests with a financial stake in City Hall decisions, including public employee unions looking to protect pay and benefits that have long used their financial might to elect political allies.
But increasingly, other donors — developers, entertainment moguls, philanthropists — are utilizing the system of limitless donations to promote their favored candidates.
The rise of the super PAC in L.A. city elections is another byproduct of U.S. Supreme Court rulings that have gradually diluted federal, state and local efforts to limit campaign contributions and spending. Los Angeles’ ethics laws cap individual and company contributions in mayoral contests at $1,300 during the primary election and another $1,300 in a runoff, if one occurs.