Times graphic (Los Angeles Times )
A Times analysis of campaign contributions in the Los Angeles mayor's race shows that big donors are using loosely regulated "super PACs" to help candidates like never before.
The Times has created an interactive graphic that allows readers to break down how the money is flowing to the candidates and from where.
Of the $17.5 million collected so far to support mayoral hopefuls Wendy Greuel and Eric Garcetti, roughly one-third — a record $6.1 million — has gone into independent political action committees that can accept contributions of any size.
The rise of the parallel campaign finance system, awash in five- and six-figure donations that dwarf the limits approved by voters, has watchdogs of political influence sounding alarms.
GRAPHIC: Campaign contributions by special interest
"This is not the system that the reformers envisioned," said Benjamin Bycel, who was executive director of the city's Ethics Commission in the 1990s. The surge in independent campaign spending, he said, "essentially guts" laws setting contribution limits.
Many of the outsized PAC donations come from interests with a financial stake in City Hall decisions, including public employee unions, which have long used their financial might to elect political allies, looking to protect workers' pay and benefits.
But increasingly, other donors — commercial developers, entertainment moguls, philanthropists — are utilizing the system of limitless donations to promote their favored candidates.
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The rise of the super PAC in L.A. city elections is another byproduct of U.S. Supreme Court rulings that have gradually diluted federal, state and local efforts to limit campaign contributions and spending. Los Angeles' ethics laws cap individual and company contributions in mayoral contests at $1,300 during the primary election and another $1,300 in a runoff, if one occurs.
For decades, the high court has held that unlimited spending by independent campaign groups — and unlimited donations to those entities by individuals and companies — is constitutionally protected free speech. The only real restriction: The advertising, polling and get-out-the vote activities funded by the PACs can't be coordinated with campaign operations controlled by the candidates.
Independent expenditures first became a significant factor in L.A.'s mayoral elections in 2001, when $1.9 million was spent by unions, billboard companies and other business interests in the contest between James Hahn and Antonio Villaraigosa. In a rematch four years later, the number jumped to $4.3 million.
A watershed came in 2008, when organized labor spent more than $8.5 million to elect state lawmaker Mark Ridley-Thomas to the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. That was nearly nine times what Ridley-Thomas raised for his own campaign.
With mixed success, labor groups have been seeking to replicate that winning formula at City Hall and, this year, some prominent business interests have joined their efforts.