Record Chesbro-Jordan spending

Candidates' expenses totaled $6.4 million

By James W. Sweeney
Published February 9, 1999. Copyright, Santa Rosa Press Democrat

The state Senate contest between Wes Chesbro and John Jordan shattered California spending records, according to a final accounting of campaign expenses that shows combined expenditures of more than $6.4 million.

Jordan, the heir to a natural gas and wine fortune, made loans and contributions totaling more than $2.6 million of his own money in a losing cause. Family members chipped in another $575,000.

Chesbro, a Humboldt County political activist for almost three decades, lacked the Jordan family's deep pockets. He was, however, able to tap into funds controlled by the Democratic Party and legislative leaders for about $1.5 million as both parties upped the ante time and again for one of the few open Senate seats in the state.

Bob Stern, an expert in California campaign finance, said the contest was "off the charts'' before the final finance reports were even filed.

And a cursory review of the thick finance reports sent to the secretary of state suggests the totals may increase if they are subjected to a rigorous audit.

To put the figures in perspective, a study by Common Cause pegged the most expensive legislative contest in state history at $3.1 million in 1996 -- less than half of what Chesbro and Jordan spent in one of California's most rural regions.

Further underscoring the enormous price tag for the race, U.S. Senate elections held last year in Oregon, Utah, Arizona and Colorado all cost less.

"It's astonishing,'' said Kim Alexander of the nonprofit California Voter Foundation. "I've studied campaign finance trends in California, and I can't recall any other legislative contest that got close to that much money being spent.''

The money paid for an onslaught of mail, TV and radio advertising.

But, Alexander said, "the sad thing about political fund raising and spending in California is that most of the money pays for political communication that is designed to confuse voters, mislead voters, frighten voters, manipulate voters and just about anything but inform voters.''

Despite the heavy spending in the Chesbro-Jordan contest, the outcome wasn't close: Chesbro won by 25,000 votes out of 269,000 cast.

With combined expenditures of a little more than $6.4 million, Jordan and Chesbro spent about $23.89 for every vote cast in the Nov. 2 election.

"It certainly costs a lot of money to get your message out in California elections,'' Alexander said. "We have large districts. State Senate districts are larger than congressional districts. There's a point where you saturate the market and the campaign finances become an arms race more than anything else.''

And in what may have been a bit of voter backlash, more than 18,000 votes were cast for a third party candidate who didn't campaign and in fact spent part of the year in jail.

Jordan, in a post-election conversation, said he was disappointed to lose but wouldn't second-guess his campaign. Chesbro says he favors campaign overhaul but hasn't proposed any specific changes to the current law, which places no limits on contributions or expenditures.

Both candidates turned aside under-funded challengers in the June primary and concentrated their spending on the November election, which was followed closely by political insiders because it was one of just three state Senate districts considered toss-ups.

Jordan, a Santa Rosa Republican, began raising money for the race in late 1996.

He reported contributions and loans totaling $3,393,724 through Dec. 31, 1998. That included $1.3 million of personal loans and another $1.3 million in contributions of his own money. Jordan also reported about $1 million in contributions from state GOP sources.

Combined with contributions from his family and other donors itemized in Jordan's campaign finance report, it appears the total figure may exceed $3.3 million by as much as $1 million.

But campaign officials say computer problems may have caused some errors.

Jordan reported campaign expenditures of $3.7 million, a figure that includes expenses covered by legislative leaders and the state Republican Party.

Chesbro, an Arcata Democrat, relied heavily on state legislators and Sacramento-based political action committees to finance his campaign, which raised $2,720,328 and spent an almost identical amount during the 1997-98 election cycle.

His largest benefactors included the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which raises money for U.S. Senate candidates but gave $30,000 to Chesbro. Among his other big donors were the Senate Democratic Leadership Fund, a California state Senate committee that gave $676,200, and the state Democratic Central Committee, which spent $996,500 on his behalf.

© 1998 The Press Democrat

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