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Trading Endorsements for Cash: Who’s Behind All the Confusing Prop and Candidate Mail That You Immediately Throw Away?

[dropcap size=big]I[/dropcap]t’s October in an election year, and recycling bins around the city are brimming with political mail. Candidates and ballot measure campaigns in California pour millions of dollars into organizations that exchange endorsements for cash before mailing them out to thousands or millions of voters. Operated mostly by professional consultants, Slate Mailer Organizations offer a major payday for political operatives while confusing, or in some cases, actively misleading the public.

Many mailers include multiple endorsements, providing numerous candidates and ballot measures an organizational seal of approval from a legitimate-sounding group like “Millennials for Effective Government,” “The Coalition for Senior Citizen Security,” or “The California Early Voter Guide.”

So who are these organizations anyway? In all of the above cases, the answer is political consultants bent on making you vote for their client’s interests. Regardless of their appealing names, most slate mailers are operated by campaign strategists trading endorsements for cash. Consultants solicit contributions from campaigns, who pay for placement on mailers. 

Mailers from what are essentially fictional groups provide no education to voters and are, in many cases, even less educational than other campaign ads.

Mailers from what are essentially fictional groups provide no education to voters and are, in many cases, even less educational than other campaign ads. Fitting numerous endorsements on a small mailer leaves little space for providing useful information to voters. These mailers offer a patina of legitimacy for paid campaign ads while lining the pockets of consultants, accountants, and strategists.

Prices for endorsements vary. A council seat in a small city might cost as little as $100, while an endorsement for County Supervisor can cost thousands. Candidates view this as an effective way to reach voters, as some are big spenders. According to filings with the County Registrar, Jackie Lacey’s campaign for LA District Attorney has spent over $789,000 on Slate Mailer Organization endorsements this cycle, and over $1.3 million since 2012.

One firm’s address probably appears on many of the mailers you’ve received: Gould & Orellana, LLC. “We are the Treasurer or Assistant Treasurer for hundreds of such organizations,” said David Gould, President and Managing Partner, in an email. “Some of their forms show on the Secretary of State website; some do not.” Gould clarified they have no responsibility for these mailers’ content, but Gould & Orellana’s address is often the only identifying information on the mailer itself. 

I was able to identify six consultants who operate 17 total slate mailer groups aimed at different demographic and ideological segments of the electorate.

While there are many slate groups, what became clear is that a small group of well-connected consultants operates the successful ones. Using the Secretary of State’s CalAccess database, I was able to find 27 slate mailer organizations listing Gould as their treasurer, all of which listed Gould & Orellana’s phone numbers in their filings. Among these, I was able to identify six consultants who operate 17 total slate mailer groups aimed at different demographic and ideological segments of the electorate. I reached out to all but one of these consultants before publication, but none responded to my inquiries. Here’s what we know about them from available public records.

Progressive Voter Guide (Formerly Feel the Bern)

Coalition for Senior Citizen Security

Council for Concerned Women Voters Legislative Guide

Our Voice, Latino Voter Guide

Who’s Producing These: Renee Nahum & Associates

Renee Nahum appears to be one of the better-paid consultants on the list, taking at least $119,000 in consulting fees from her four organizations. She’s also well-connected: she’s held positions in the LA County and State Democratic Parties and managed LA City Councilman Mitch O’Farrell. She’s the only consultant listed here whose groups received money from both “yes” and “no” campaigns over the same ballot initiative, in this case, Prop 21. When reached for comment, Ms. Nahum hung up on L.A. Taco, though she did confirm some of these details to SF Gate reporter Mike Moffitt

Who’s Paying:

    • Yes on 21: $66,289
    • No on 21: $63,070 (Coalition for Senior Citizen Security)
    • Yes on 22: $50,000
    • Herb Wesson for LA County Supervisor: $17,682
    • Jackie Lacey for LA District Attorney: $14,335

California Early Voter Guide

Californians for a Sustainable Future

Los Angeles Voter Guide Committee

Who’s Producing These: Dakota Communications

Dakota Communications has been working on political campaigns since 1997. Rick Taylor, the consultant responsible for these voter guides, has a long history in LA politics, working with significant LA political figures like former Mayor Richard Riordan and former County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky. In addition to political strategy, Dakota Communications does marketing work for clients like Covered California and LA Metro. 

Who’s Paying:

    • Yes on 21: $149,553
    • Jackie Lacey for District Attorney: $62,029
    • Yes on 22: $36,000
    • No on 23: $36,000

Millennials for Effective Government

African Americans Vote

California Senior Voter Guide

Who’s Producing These: Harris Business Group/Demetrius Harris

Harris Business Group is an operation of Demetrius Harris, an entrepreneur, consultant, and former state assembly district director. He frequently collaborates with Ingrid Orellana on slate mailers and uses Gould & Orellana’s services as a treasurer. I was unable to locate Harris to reach out for comment on this piece.

Who’s Paying:

    • Yes on 21: $62,750
    • Tim Reuben for LA Superior Court: $28,000
    • Mike Gipson for State Assembly: $9,000
    • David Ryu for LA City Council: $8,100

Families First: Education Voter Guide

Latino Family Voter Guide

Your Community Voter Guide

California Families Vote Green

Who’s Producing These: Candid Research & Green Alley Strategies

Candid Research is a research and strategy consultancy run by Matthew Jason, while Paul Arney operates green Alley Strategies. Jason has done campaign research for candidates across the state, while Arney previously worked in the state assembly and congressional offices. They appear to be frequent collaborators on mailer projects. 

Who’s Paying?

Yes on 21: $56,000

Jackie Lacey for LA District Attorney:$25,837

Tim Reuben for LA Superior Court: $8,000

California Republican Voter Guide (formerly California Law Enforcement Guide)

Independent Voters Guide

John F. Kennedy Alliance (formerly California Democratic Alliance)

Who’s Producing These: The Political Scientists

The Political Scientists state that “our slate mailers have been a fixture in every California statewide election since 1987,” and the LA Times reported complaints about them as early as 1989. Operated by Fred Huebscher, a slate mailer OG, they have been a minor player in this cycle. In 2018, he was paid $23,000 for consulting services by John F. Kennedy Alliance.

Who’s Paying:

    • Jim Dear for Carson City Council: $2,000
    • Tim Reuben for LA Superior Court Judge: $500
    • Linda Sun for LA Superior Court Judge: $500
    • David Diamond for LA Superior Court Judge: $500

Solving the Problem

Right now, the responsibility falls on voters to do their due diligence themselves. Groups with no presence, platform, or principles can still influence voters.  It’s understandable that many voters see a name like “Latino Family Voter Guide” and assume the group represents and speaks for Latino families. When voters receive many guides funded by the same big-money campaigns, their messages are reinforced repeatedly. 

Replacing a small asterisk with clear disclosure of the committee’s amount clarifies voters that these are just another campaign ad.

Most, if not all, of the endorsements on these mailers will have an asterisk indicating that the endorsement was paid by someone to be there. The people sending these mailers would probably prefer you not look at that fine print. While these minimal disclosure requirements are enforced, mailers themselves are completely opaque about who is behind the group listed on the front page.  

While current campaign finance law can’t constitutionally prevent groups like this from producing mailers, it does allow for regulation. The state should require clear disclosure of the people responsible for the content of mailers, information that’s currently buried in complex filings with the Secretary of State. A second, more impactful reform would require mailers to list the amounts paid by candidates and proposition advocates for placement. Replacing a small asterisk with clear disclosure of the committee’s amount clarifies voters that these are just another campaign ad.

We have to hold candidates and campaigns responsible. After all, they’re the ones footing the bill. When slates arrive in the mail for local candidates like Jackie Lacey, Herb Wesson, Mike Gipson, and countless aspiring Superior Court judges, voters should ask why they are purchasing these retail endorsements. Voters could clarify to candidates that these mailers are a strike against them and that there’s a reputational cost to misleading the public.

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