Connecticut billionaire's influence in Shasta County curbed with new state law
This upcoming June primary is the first chance to see the effects of new local campaign finance limits in California set by Assembly bill 571. Shasta County provides a window into how local elections are impacted by the change.
California state lawmakers revised campaign finance laws in 2019, setting a default limit on contributions to campaigns for city and county elections.
“No politician is ever going to tell you that money affects how they vote,” says Sean McMorris with California Common Cause, a progressive advocacy group seeking to reform campaign finance. “But the public is not naïve and it can affect how they vote.”
AB 571 went into effect last year, but not before some campaigns saw huge donations. The bill was introduced by Assembly Speaker Pro Tempore Kevin Mullin (D-South San Francisco). Mullin, now running for Congress, has made campaign finance reform a big focus throughout his legislative career.
Shasta County is a perfect example of these large donations in local elections.
Connecticut billionaire Reverge Anselmo’s $100,000 donation to now-county Supervisor Patrick Jones in 2020 remains the largest single donation in county history.
Anselmo, a former filmmaker and heir to a vast fortune, started a new life in Northern California in the early 2000s. He poured millions into a complex featuring a vineyard, restaurant, beef cattle operation and a private chapel.
But the newcomer quickly faced roadblocks with Shasta County officials.
Anselmo and the county fought a long legal battle over a number of issues, including grading his pasture without the proper permits or clearance, and building the private chapel, which also faced permitting complaints from county officials.
A U.S. District Court judge issued a ruling in favor of the county in 2013. Anselmo eventually paid out over $1.4 million in the settlement. He then sold his vineyard and moved back to his family estate in Connecticut.
“No politician is ever going to tell you that money affects how they vote. But the public is not naïve."
With a grudge against the county, Anselmo gave more than half a million dollars to candidates running for the board of supervisors in 2020 and 2022, all to support people who would advocate reform of the county government that fought against him.
Anselmo’s record-setting $100,000 campaign donation might remain forever – because of the limits set by California’s new campaign finance law.
McMorris with California Common Cause says the goal of the bill wasn't to impose any limits on local governments, but to force them to make a conscious decision on what’s acceptable. Cities and counties are still allowed to determine their own maximums.
“For instance Pasadena, a couple months ago, were set to pass an ordinance that would say, ‘We have no campaign contribution limits’,” says McMorris. “And the community found out about it and there was very big pushback and the ordinance essentially got tabled indefinitely.”
Before AB 571, people could donate an unlimited amount to local campaigns. The default was essentially flipped. Some cities and counties set their own limits, but most didn’t have any.
Now, by sticking to the defaults outlined in the bill, individuals can give a maximum of $4,900 to any one candidate in an election cycle. That number is adjusted every couple years for inflation. Shasta County has yet to set their own campaign contribution limits.
Contenders running in the county’s upcoming primary election have mixed feelings about the new limits.
“I had a local pastor friend of mine give me $5,” says Chris Kelstrom, running to replace retiring Shasta County Board Chair Les Baugh. “That $5 means more to me than $4,900 from some special interest group or foundation or business that’s trying to influence my vote.”
Kelstrom supports campaign limits because they force candidates to do more outreach in their communities.
But another political newcomer, Kevin Crye, doesn’t see the problem with large donations. Running for the other open seat on the board, Crye says the county is just a shell of its old self.
“We’ve allowed crime and homelessness to just overrun our area,” he says. “And so because somebody who has an affinity for Shasta County says, ‘Hey, I’ve got money, I want to make that place better’, that’s their right to give it.”
Crye compares politics to baseball teams. The teams can spend as much money as they want, but winning consistently requires the team to practice and perform well. Crye says he’s still focused on doing outreach in the community to represent their wants and needs on the board.
Crye’s first donation was from the Shasta General Purpose Committee (or Recall Shasta), the group Anselmo bankrolled with nearly half a million dollars in contributions.
Anselmo himself also showed up this year, giving $4,900 to Baron Browning, a candidate competing against Kelstrom for District 5.
Browning wouldn't respond to repeated requests for comment, though statements given to the Record Searchlight say he didn’t solicit Anselmo for the donation.
Though the limits on donations in local elections may curb the influence of big money, some worry the new laws won’t be enforced.
Mary Rickert is the current District 3 supervisor in Shasta County. She faced a recall challenge in 2021.
“I think they’ll occasionally have a $4,900 contribution here and there,” Rickert says. “But I think there’s a lot of money in the background floating around.”
In early 2021, Rickert filed complaints with the California Fair Political Practices Commission, the statewide agency responsible for campaign finance law enforcement.
Her complaints were aimed at the Recall Shasta campaign, which successfully replaced moderate county Supervisor Lenoard Moty earlier this year. Rickert argues the group failed to follow basic campaign finance laws.
She states the committee behind the group didn’t properly identify elected officers or indicate support or opposition to the recall. The committee also failed to disclose on its website or through Facebook fundraising where donations were going, which was the political committee itself.
Lastly, the complaint highlighted some donors that weren’t properly identified. All contributions of more than $100 have to identify the contributors name, address, occupation and employer.
Moty and Shasta County Supervisor Joe Chimenti, an ally of Rickert, also joined in on filing complaints. All three faced recall challenges, but organizers only collected enough signatures to get Moty’s district on the ballot.
Those cases are still under investigation by the FPPC, almost a year later. An FPPC spokesperson says the agency doesn't comment on ongoing cases or complaints.
"I think there’s a lot of money in the background floating around."
Rickert says it’s very likely if her opponents win their elections to the board, Shasta County could also do away with campaign limits. That would again open the field to large donors like Anselmo.
“I think that that’s a real slippery slope,” she says. “But, like I say, right now I think that the money’s still circulating. I think that basically the rules aren’t being followed anyway.”
Rickert argues the inaction by the FPPC to crack down on campaign finance wrongdoings is allowing large fundraising to continue behind the scenes. She fears it could culminate in a takeover of the entire county government by groups funded with dark money.