Local Politics

Wednesday, Aug 01 2012 05:54 PM

Local candidates rack up campaign debts

BY JAMES BURGER Californian staff writer jburger@bakersfield.com

Nearly all of the top vote-getters in June's three Kern County Board of Supervisors primary races finished the campaign with steep debts to their political consultants or themselves, according to newly filed financial reports.

Only one of them had the cash on hand at the end of the filing period -- June 30 --to pay off that debt. Most who didn't and still don't say they are moving aggressively to raise the needed money.

First District candidate Mick Gleason said he racked up his $31,418 debt to campaign consultant Mark Abernathy's Western Pacific Research in the last two weeks of his race.

Spending "came to a crescendo in the last two weeks," Gleason said. "I didn't anticipate that."

He ran a campaign based on fiscal conservatism, he said, and being in the hole troubles him. Gleason not only has to raise money to pay off the debt but also to power his November runoff race against Roy Ashburn.

"I don't like debt," Gleason said. "We're going to work it off as fast as we can."

Leticia Perez, who won the 5th District seat outright in June by capturing a majority of the vote, owed about $33,000 at the end of June, mostly to her campaign consultant, Richie Ross

Ross is a Democratic campaign consultant from Sacramento who also backed Perez's mentor, state Sen. Michael Rubio, and has run campaigns across the state for decades.

Perez said she owes Ross $25,000. She said she has already scheduled a fundraiser for mid-September to raise money to retire the debt.

"I'd like to start the job in December without debt hanging over my head," Perez said.

Perez said she was always aware that running a winning campaign could mean an end-of-campaign debt but "I was hopeful we would be able to raise what we needed to run the campaign."

That didn't happen.

Also grappling with debt is the woman Perez knocked out of office with a successful ground attack, Supervisor Karen Goh. The sitting supervisor owes Abernathy's Western Pacific Research $35,108 and herself $10,000.

Like Perez, Goh said she is already planning to reach out to supporters -- new and old -- and hold events to retire her debt.

Debt, she said, "certainly wasn't part of the plan." But Goh said she knew it could be a reality.

In the 4th District race, both attorney Harley Pinson and financial adviser David Couch personally loaned their campaigns $100,000.

Pinson, who lost the race to Couch and is now considering a run for the Bakersfield City Council this year, still owed himself the $100,000. But his campaign only had $3,416 in the bank.

Pinson declined to comment on whether he will attempt to raise money to retire his loan.

Couch's loan was still on his campaign books, but so was $103,000 in cash, more than enough to pay himself back.

If Goh, Perez and Gleason are able pay off their debt -- and Pinson is able retire his personal loan with donations -- it will be because they asked supporters who gave a little to give more and recruit new supporters to donate.

But their ability to do that is limited by Kern County's campaign finance reform law, known as Measure K.

The rule limits donations to $500 from a person or business and $1,500 from a political action committee per contest. That means they can give up those amounts for the primary and then again for the general election, if there is one.

Candidates can give their own campaign as much of their own money as they want and don't have to pay themselves back.

"The campaign limits now stand so we have to work within those limitations," Goh said. "It takes a while to ask all of those people and to receive those contributions."

Gleason said he is setting an aggressive pace to pay off his debt.

"I anticipate that that debt is going to be significantly reduced by the end of August," he said. "I'm the person who is responsible for it. My personal goal is to get it to zero or as near to zero as it's possible to be at the end of the campaign."

Ashburn's financial reports indicate he owed his campaign consultant Stan Harper $24,021 but also that he had paid the debt off. Ashburn said he doesn't believe his campaign had any debt following the primary.

The candidates with debt face uncertainty as to when they must pay it off.

Measure K states that any extension of credit held 30 days after the end of the primary or general election campaign will be considered a contribution.

If Goh, Perez and Gleason's debts were deemed contributions, they would violate the Measure K limits. The pressure would be off, though, if the individual or business that provided the credit made "commercially reasonable" efforts to collect on the debt, according to Measure K.

In the past, Abernathy clients have maintained sizeable debts to him for long-dead races, without interest, for years.

But Goh pointed out that her campaign filing shows a small interest charge that is due on her debt.

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