My View: The Corrupting Influence of Money on Local Politics


Friends of Davis Fire

When he announced on the Vanguard his run for city council, Paul Boylan, among other things, told us that he wouldn’t be soliciting campaign donations – although he would accept them if someone offered them.

Recently, when the Enterprise ran his story, he told them, “Asking for those things creates a quid pro quo.” He added, “I want to assure people that if they elect me, I will go into that chair owing nothing to anybody.”

Columnist Bob Dunning quickly scoffed at this, writing that it was “an admirable position, to be sure, but one that’s relatively meaningless in Davis city politics, where most contributions are so small that it’s hard to imagine any one of our five council members are beholden to anyone … ‘Hey, I gave you 50 bucks, you owe me.’ …”

Mr. Dunning is dead wrong here, and no one knows this better than Paul Boylan himself. In the 2008 Davis City Council Election, Don Saylor and Stephen Souza received around $4000 in $100 checks from the firefighters, who each gave individually on the same day.

In June of 2008, the Yolo County Grand Jury came out with a report citing, among other things, a hostile work place in the fire station along with retaliation for critics of the fire chief and union.  The city was forced to utilize Police Ombudsman Bob Aaronson to conduct a follow-up investigation, which he completed three months later.

In December of 2008, Mayor Pro Tem Don Saylor and Councilmember Stephen Souza, along with Mayor Ruth Asmundson who had the same campaign contribution treatment in 2006, voted 3-2 (Lamar Heystek and Sue Greenwald dissenting) to not have the city council read the full fire report from Bob Aaronson.

Both Stephen Souza and Don Saylor were adamant that the council not read the full report.

“Just so that’s clear, I’m interested in hearing from the city manager what his conclusions are based on whatever he has done to arrive at them,” Don Saylor stated. “I don’t need to know what exactly was stated by any person, at every point in time.”

Stephen Souza would add, “I don’t need all fifty pages, I just don’t.”

In a June 2013 column in the Enterprise, Rich Rifkin wrote, “Theirs was never a vote of conscience. It was not a vote of practical or legal merit. It was not due to precedent. The vote was cast because those members of the Davis City Council had been influenced by all the money and favors Local 3494 had given them to win office.”

The decision by the council in late 2008 had consequences. The council never learned of the extent of the corruption by either fire chief Rose Conroy or Union President Bobby Weist.

Ironically, it was Paul Boylan, as an attorney representing the Vanguard, who filed two lawsuits in 2012 and 2013 to finally get all of the records released. Mr. Boylan knows from personal experience that money corrupts.

One hundred dollars may not sound like a lot and it isn’t. But the $100 limitation is only on individual contributions. The firefighters were among the first groups to learn that, if they bundled their contributions from 40 or so members, they not only would maximize their influence, they could have disproportionate impact over those who more or less played by the rules.

Others have tried this game too – often developers or large commercial interests will spread $100 across family members and employees to help get their favored candidates elected.

The social science research is mixed on what the effect is. After all, it is plausible that the exertion of influence is not that large monied interests are getting people to change their vote, but rather that they are influencing the system by getting large monied interests elected in the first place.

There is another and perhaps more concerning runaround of the campaign limitations at work here, for those candidates who are seeking higher office.

Last year, the Davis City Council was asked to vote on a CFD (Community Facilities District) for the Cannery. The Vanguard last May noted that Dan Wolk, as candidate for State Assembly back in 2014, received a $4100 contribution from The New Home Company itself, $1500 from Kevin Carson, The New Home Company President, and $1500 from Ashley Feeney, The New Home Company Vice President. He also received $1500 from George Phillips, who was the consultant on the Cannery Project.

Again, there was nothing legally improper about these contributions, which were received within a day of each other. Second, at the time these contributions were made, the Cannery had just been approved and Dan Wolk seemed more likely than not to win an Assembly seat.

Obviously, they were not made in some sort of anticipation of the CFD vote – the CFD wasn’t even on the radar screen at the time and there was no belief, even if it were, that Dan Wolk would be on the city council.

Dan Wolk has been fairly consistent on the Cannery, at least since his first meeting on the subject – he has been supportive of the need for new housing for families in Davis.

He sang the praises of the Cannery at the State of the City Address in January, which he said “reestablishes Davis as a leader in innovative housing.” The mayor said that we have two demographical issues in Davis – the cohort of those between 25 and 45 years old, “that demographic is shrinking. That really is concerning for the future of our city.”

At the same time, one of the biggest concerns that “good government” people have is the corrupting influence of money in the system. Whether The New Home Company actually bought influence with Mr. Wolk, let alone his vote, seems questionable. But the average citizen doesn’t have the access to that kind of money.

The typical citizen does not have $8600 to give from four different entities.

Our concern is there, however. More serious is the implication that Dan Wolk may have received threats from the beverage industry in early December, threats that they would fund his opponents if he persisted in pushing for a soda tax.

The mayor went from supportive of the soda tax in early December to opposed to it ten days later.

The proposition of running for higher office while still on the council is a huge factor that has been unexplored. First, it sets up the prospect of currying favors to interests such as organized labor (fire among others) that will help to finance and to staff campaign efforts.

Second, instead of limiting contributions to $100, the monied interests can push through up to $4100 at a time. So for Dan Wolk, in this election cycle, he received another $5000 from New Homes and the Cannery.

He also received $500 from Ramco, $500 from Nishi, $500 from Tyler Shilling (who is tied to the MRIC development), and that’s just based on a surface scan of his reported contributions. While none of this is prodigious money that’s going to sway his vote, we are left with the unpleasant potential, at least, that local public policy could be framed in ways more to benefit a run for higher office than for the benefit of the local community.

We have constructed laws locally to reduce that influence, and yet sophisticated interest groups have found ways to circumvent that. But that pales in comparison to the ability for these interests to help bankroll a run for higher office, where they are no longer bound by the $100 campaign limitations.

One big defense against this influence into our local politics is to elect people who are not using the council as a stepping stone. On the other hand, it may be hard to identify who is using the office as a stepping stone and who is not.

While some have suggested a publicly funded campaign system, others want more limitations. Legal interpretations of money as speech aside, it is my general observation (as we have seen locally) that politicians and their backers will find a way around even stringent laws.

At the end of the day, the biggest defense around this type of influence may be instant reporting requirements. Instead of learning February 1 about a contribution from July, what if the campaign had to report all contributions in real time, as they came in? It’s not a perfect defense, but at least it gives us a chance to scrutinize the money as it comes in rather than months after the fact.

The problem, however, is that all actions are scrutinized in an electoral context.  This week Mayor Dan Wolk, who has been currying favors with the local firefighters’ union for several years, pushed for the city to do a fire department merger study.  In 2013, Dan Wolk, while supporting impasse and some fire reforms, opposed staffing cuts and flipped on shared management – an issue that his mother, among other public officials, pressured the city about, on behalf of the firefighters’ union.

The union still is trying to wrest control of the fire services, which is currently headed by UC Davis Fire Chief Nathan Trauernicht.  The question we are left with as citizens is whether this represents a move that is in the best interest of the citizens, or whether the mayor is still trying to get campaign support from the powerful union.

—David M. Greenwald reporting


About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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24 thoughts on “My View: The Corrupting Influence of Money on Local Politics”

  1. SODA

    I agree with your comments about stepping stones and eyes of our local office holders on higher positions HOWEVER I feel it is unfair for a candidate to ‘swear’ he won’t run for higher office. He might not think he wants to, but then may enjoy the first job enough to go higher. AND by halting the progression of excellent local office holders who might have thought they didn’t want to go higher, who are we left with?

    1. PhillipColeman

      A group political effort seeking to circumvent the ceiling limit on cash donations by parceling it out among individuals in that politically motivated group is described as being “legal” and “sophisticated.”

      It’s legal, no question. The clear intimation in this column is that it should be made illegal. If it  violates majority voters’ sense of fairness and equity in the election process, then expand the campaign contribution control to prohibit the ability of PAC’s to break large sums of money into smaller legal chunks.

      It’s as simple as that, although doubtless will never happen. That is, it will never happen if we expect to see the potential recipients of these bundled contributions to take the political campaign reform initiative. Incumbents prospered under the existing system of campaign contributions and therefore have a classical case of “conflict of interest.” They want that money as much as the PAC’s want to give it to them.

      At the risk of being seen as quibbling, saying this is a “sophisticated” campaign contribution technique fails to understand the meaning of the word. It’s practice seems much closer to “crude.”

      1. Miwok

        I agree, Phil, because the UCD departments used to and still do the same thing. IF you don’t contribute to the desired charity or candidate, you are in trouble. There are lots of people terrorized by the management who desire to see a certain candidate elected to office, and send out internal memos and Press Releases purporting to speak for the University, and threatening the livelihood IF said person does not get elected to the State, for example.

        If the Davis candidates or former CC members are selling out for a few thousand dollars, which influences millions of dollars in decisions, they work cheap. Are they doing the “donation thru prepaid VISA” like the national candidates do?

        1. South of Davis

          Miwok wrote:

          > There are lots of people terrorized by the management who desire

          > to see a certain candidate elected to office

          Some bloggers thought only hardware store owners did this…

      1. Tia Will

        Regarding instant notification. It would seem to me that this could cut both ways. I see it as beneficial to have the knowledge of where monetary support is originating immediately. But I am also aware that the emotional impact or even the memory of a disclosure tends to fade over time.

      2. South of Davis

        David wrote:

        > Someone gets a contribution and they have to disclose it immediately

        A law like this will just move the money from the campaign account to a private PAC account (as is already happening to avoid disclosure). I’ve posted my simple idea before that we just prohibit elected officials from voting on anything that will financially benefit a donor to the campaign or who spent personal money campaigning for the official.

        If a union or business owner wants to give money to a candidate or fund a PAC that sends out mailers supporting a candidate that is fine (and allowed under the 1st amendment), but when it comes time to vote on a contract with the union or business the candidate (or candidates) that took money must recuse themselves don’t get to vote on it…

        1. Tia Will

          when it comes time to vote on a contract with the union or business the candidate (or candidates) that took money must recuse “

          A simple and elegant solution to one half of the problem. The other half is how to address the issue of threats to fund one’s opponents. Even with the condition of mandatory recusal, the threat of election of those more closely philosophically aligned is not addressed.

        2. South of Davis

          Tia wrote:

          > threats to fund one’s opponents.

          I’m not clear what she means by this, does anyone know what a “threat to fund one’s opponents” is?

          1. David Greenwald Post author

            It’s in reference to the fact that the soda industry reportedly threatened Mayor Wolk that if he continued to push for the soda tax, they would fund his opponents.

  2. Tia Will


    I completely agree with your point. No candidate should be forced to decide upon future aspirations upon entry to a race. If a candidate decides based on experiences obtained in office that they would like to move on to another position, they should not be held responsible for previously self imposed limitations. I do however favor a candidate completing their full elected term prior to making a bid for higher office. That was, after all, the job that they were elected to do and I believe that they have an obligation to those that elected them.

    1. SODA


      but higher office openings (incumbants being termed out or retiring thereby providing opportunity for a candidate) don’t come along at optimal times for lower office holders to complete their terms. But that is often known when the lower office holder runs for his safe seat again. We have a number of local examples….

    2. Matt Williams

      SODA, it really isn’t hard to put together a multi-year, multi-office projection of what elected positions are going to be available in a 6-year time horizon. Term limitations on Assembly and Senate seats have produced mandatory “openings” in both 2014 and 2016.  Situations like we have had this election where Bill Dodd had both Assembly and Senate options available to him, add some uncertainty, but it was clear that there was going to be one available seat regardless.  Planning for the opportunities isn’t a significant challenge.

      I agree with Tia’s point that a candidate should complete their full elected term prior to making a bid for higher office, but also believe that once an elected official has been reelected to a second term, that self imposed limitation disappears.  Don Saylor’s candidacy for Assembly is an example of a situation where I don’t see the need for the limitation.  By all accounts, Don has been a very good Supervisor.  Many would argue that he has been a much better Supervisor than a City Council member.  It would be great if he could complete his second term as Supervisor, but the fact that it is his second term makes his decision to run for Assembly both understandable and (in my opinion) not a violation of Tia’s point.

      For me, if I have any doubts about a candidate’s long-term intentions, all I have to do is ask, “Why are you running for office?”  The answers to that question will consistently (but not always) separate the professional politicians from the public servants.

  3. Tia Will

    I’m not clear what she means by this, does anyone know what a “threat to fund one’s opponents” is?”

    Sorry to have been unclear. In the plainest terms, candidate A is known to favor policies that are deemed “unfavorable to business”. Company X tells the candidate that they will fund candidates who are demonstrated to be more business friendly without naming specific companies or individuals if Candidate A does not vote in their favor.

    1. South of Davis

      I’m pretty sure that my idea will prevent this since no company or union wants to fund a candidate who when elected can’t vote them favors.  When I worked in politics we would get tons of money from business and unions since they knew they would get many times more back (a high ROI) when the candidate was elected.  As more and more business and unions realize that making “perfectly legal campaign contributions” (that are no longer called “bribes”) they are “investing” more and more money each election cycle (see URL below for a great graph):

      Unless we we pass a law prohibiting anyone that receives money from a person, union or company from voting to give that person, union or company more money we are doomed to have the people that buy our elected officials in total control of the country (vs the just “almost” total control of the country that the campaign donors have today)…

      1. Matt Williams

        SoD, what you appear to be advocating is reducing the role of “political calculations” in the way we are governed.  I support that 100%, and believe it doesn’t take a change in election law to realize that.  It can be achieved quickly and effectively by electing candidates who believe we should make more evidence-based decisions and fewer political calculations.  Subjective political concerns will frequently be part of the evidence, but those political concerns should not make objective evidence irrelevant.

        There is always a time and a place for political calculations.  Brett Lee’s reintroduction of the marijuana tax on Tuesday was a very good example.  Brett’s political calculation was that Davis needed to be proactive in how it prepared for the possibility of a legalization of recreational marijuana use statewide.  I strongly support that political calculation.  Brett’s argument that there will be negative consequences if Davis is the “lowest cost” jurisdiction rings true.  He deserves all our thanks for taking a proactive leadership role on that issue.


  4. aaahirsch8

    Thank you David for being the institutional memory for the Davis community.

    Articles raising issues like  is what the Vanguard does best…as well as the forum discussion that it inspires.

    Careerism among our city politicians, who are looking to who interest they should curry in the the city to earn their financial support their promotion in the political hierarchy is troubling.

    The Citizens United decision giving corporations (and money) unlimited campaign contribution rights is certainly corrupting of any sense of legitimacy in our democratic decision making. Unions are a more difficult, subtle nut to crack as its individuals acting together …probably only balanced at the ballot box.


  5. Paul Nicholas Boylan

    Six people who’s opinion I value have let me know I cannot possibly be elected for two reasons:

    (1)  I am openly critical of the process by which the Davis Fire Fighter’s obtained their current salary and benefits, including retirement benefits; and

    (2)  I have chosen not to seek out campaign donations and endorsements.

    Do y’all think it is too late to change my mind on both?  I can always say it was a joke.  It is well-known that I have an odd sense of humor.


  6. Misanthrop

    You left out that Mayor Wolk voted to impose a contract on the firefighters. :You wouldn’t expect someone in the pocket of a union to make such a vote. You also fail to make a connection of FF union dollars to the Wolk campaign.

    1. David Greenwald Post author

      Did not: “In 2013, Dan Wolk, while supporting impasse and some fire reforms, opposed staffing cuts and flipped on shared management – an issue that his mother, among other public officials, pressured the city about, on behalf of the firefighters’ union.”

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