Politicians have embraced slate mailers for decades because the mass mailings are effective. The ubiquitous mailers that spotlight four or more candidates or issues usually appear in voters' mailboxes with little fanfare. But what happened in one Orange County race this month should prompt state election officials to keep an eye out for potential abuses that eventually might require new restrictions on what in effect are campaign contributions.
Mailers made news when Supervisor Cynthia P. Coad alleged that victorious opponent Chris Norby got an illegal boost from a flurry of mailings. The supervisor argues that the mailings were subsidized by supporters of Measure W, the successful initiative that rezoned the El Toro Marine base for a park. Norby has friends in the anti-airport camp, but his campaign managers are adamant that he paid fair-market value for space in the mailers.
The controversy turns on how the contested mailers were funded. Those who've studied the content of the mailers say the pieces probably fit the letter, if not the spirit, of state and county election law. However, they suspect that a significant new loophole has appeared in Orange County's political contributions limits.
Mailers are produced by political consultants who generate profits by collecting fees from candidates and ballot issue groups. Candidates can spend as much money as they want on mailers. Organizations also are free to make donations to mailers, but, unlike political contributions, donations for mailers aren't subject to Orange County's contribution limits.