The people who fund American politics are already breaking spending records in the 2016 election season, collectively pouring billions of dollars into national, state, and even some local contests as they attempt to tighten their existing firm grip on the country’s political windpipe. At the same time, top candidates in each major party – namely, Trump and Sanders – have made opposition to the influence-peddling and favor-dispensing role of so-called “special interest” campaign financiers one of their signature issues.
To what extent do large campaign contributions factor into Mendocino County elections? Not much. For comparison's sake, consider the fundraiser George Clooney hosted over the weekend for presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, perennial favorite of Democratic Party right-wingers, that cost $33,400 per person to attend. That's roughly as much as each candidate raised overall in the most recent competitive Mendocino County Board of Supervisors race, the Third District contest of 2014.
In that election, Willits real estate broker Tom Woodhouse raised $32,518.57 in the course of handily beating liberal Willits City Councilmember Holly Madrigal, whose haul was $38,304, in an election year broadly favorable to conservative candidates.
Despite the comparatively small sums in question, the candidates' donor rolls lend plenty of insight into their respective allegiances. Woodhouse's main cash cow was the real estate influence group the California Real Estate Political Action Committee (CREPAC), which furnished his campaign with $7,000. While that sum is less than one percent of the roughly $757,000 CREPAC spent to influence state, local, and federal contests statewide in 2014, it amounts to more than 22 percent of the total Woodhouse amassed in his campaign coffers.
Woodhouse's second largest benefactors were Willits auto mechanic Randy MacDonald, Laytonville motel owner R. Gene Geisler, and Willits-based attorney Christopher Neary, who contributed $1,000. Neary, whose clients include the Millview Water District, was also Woodhouse's campaign secretary in the election. Willits lumberman Rich Padula chipped in $975.
Woodhouse also received minor sums from individuals with a financial stake in some of his most controversial votes to date. In one of Woodhouse's first notable moves as a supervisor, he fast-tracked Grist Creek Aggregates' proposed rubberized asphalt batch plant along Outlet Creek and Highway 162, between Willits and Covelo. With Woodhouse in the lead, the Supes voted 5-0 to approve the plant without conducting an environmental impact statement. Sure enough, the plant was an air quality nightmare, with emissions, particulates, noise, dust, noxious odors, round-the-clock activity, and health impacts resulting from the plant's first few months of operation. During the final weeks of the 2014 election, Woodhouse had received a $500 donation from Grist Creek Aggregates owner Brian K. Hurt of Covelo.
In April 2015, Supervisor Dan Hamburg introduced a meek measure asking Mendocino Redwood Company to suspend its use of hack-and-squirt on a voluntary basis while the county studied the possibility that herbicide-killed tan oaks pose a fire danger. During the supervisors' deliberations, Woodhouse starkly asserted that the government ought not be involved in regulating private landowner activities, and then cast the swing vote against the measure. Mendocino Redwood Company attorney James King of the law firm Mannon, King, and Johnson donated $200 to Woodhouse's 2014 campaign.
Holly Madrigal's top donors were Willits retiree April Twedell, who donated $5,849.46, and an apparent relative of hers named Gabriel Madrigal, who gave $2,300.
The other three supervisors – Dan Gjerde, Carre Brown, and Dan Hamburg – ran unopposed or faced no strong challenger in their most recent elections so did not raise any significant sums. John McCowen raised just shy of $10,000 in his 2012 race against Andrea Longoria, a county substance abuse counselor and local Service Employees International Union chapter leader. Longoria outspent McCowen by a greater than four-to-one margin but received only about one-third of the vote in the Ukiah district.
In 2016, the only contested Board of Supervisors seat is in the First District, where incumbent Carre Brown is defending her spot against an attorney named Montana James Podva. The latter's candidacy prompted “Vote Carre Brown — 1st District Supervisor” signs to sprout virtually overnight on the fringes of vineyards from Ukiah to Potter Valley, many of them not even located in Brown's district.