They are as ubiquitous this time of year as cornucopia centerpieces and pumpkin spiced lattes. Political advertising touting candidates and ballot measures has littered the landscape and clogged mailboxes this fall, a testament to competitive races up and down the ballot.
But besides candidate-funded advertising, a new element has stirred Petaluma’s top political race this year: An infusion of outside money is seeking to tilt the mayor’s race. A political action committee backed by big oil companies has spent $32,000 to support mayoral candidate Mike Harris and $10,000 backing mayoral candidate Brian Powell.
Harris, a former councilman, and Powell, a political newcomer, are running against Councilwoman Teresa Barrett. Barrett also sits on the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, which regulates emissions from industries, including oil and gas.
The group, the Coalition to Restore California’s Middle Class, Including Energy Companies who Produce Gas, Oil, Jobs and Pay Taxes, has sent mailers in the weeks leading up to the election touting Harris and Powell, despite the candidates’ claims to not welcome the outside support. In a liberal-leaning city like Petaluma, support from a coalition of big oil companies could actually hurt a campaign, political observers said.
“I don’t know who they are, but I wish they’d stop,” Harris said. “I think they might be trying to hurt me.”
A message left with attorney Steven Lucas, the registered agent for the coalition, was not returned.
Powell, who did not raise any campaign money or buy any advertising on his own, said the mailers at least help get his name in front of voters.
“Apparently dark money from big oil has sent another flier for me. That’s been interesting,” he said. “I’m not connected to them. Randomly, that’s brought a lot of attention to me.”
Barrett seemed to be taking the outside support for her opponents in stride, though she suggested that we were witnessing the results of Citizens United, the 2010 Supreme Court case that opened up independent campaign expenditures by corporations and political action committees.
The progressive candidate said that she has focused in the final weeks on talking to voters and sharing her message, which includes developing with denser housing downtown.
“Our community is at a pivotal point right now,” she said. “If we continue to develop in a the way we are going, we will really ruin our town.”
Powell, whose family has been in Petaluma for a century, has taken a more hard line stance on development, preferring to stop all building until the city’s infrastructure needs are met. A first-time candidate, he admitted his odds of winning were long, but he failed to endorse either opponent.
“I don’t see myself pulling this off,” he said. “I feel that if I lose, Petaluma loses.”
Harris, who narrowly lost the 2014 mayoral race to David Glass, said he will be canvassing neighborhoods up until election day, talking to voters about his goals of building the Rainier crosstown connector and adding more affordable housing.
“I feel that I have the right balance that we need,” said Harris, a senior executive for a local financial services company. “My experience would serve Petaluma well.”
Brian Sobel, a former city councilman and Petaluma political consultant, said independent groups have a history of trying to influence local elections, but it is usually unions or other groups with a clear connection to Petaluma. The mailers from the oil company coalition is the first instance he can recall of a truly outside group infiltrating Petaluma politics.