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Government Union Money Dwarfs Corporate Influence in California Elections

Edward Ring

Director, Water and Energy Policy

Edward Ring
November 1, 2022

Government Union Money Dwarfs Corporate Influence in California Elections

The disparity in fundraising in California between Democrats and Republicans is systemic. From statewide offices to local races, government unions — not corporations — make or break candidates, and it’s not even close.

A survey of  California’s Secretary of State website will debunk any suggestion that Democrats are protecting California’s citizens from the big bad corporations. If you download the site’s “Contributions Made” spreadsheet, you will see who is giving to the state Democratic Party. Through September 24, 2022, corporate donations to the California Democratic Party included: AT&T ($791,000), Blue Shield ($1.47 million), California Apartment Association ($1.19 million), California Dental Association ($800,000), California Real Estate PAC ($2.06 million), and California Medical Association ($1.18 million).

While corporations donate substantial sums to California Democrats—because Democrats win and wield power—it pales in comparison to the massive political contributions made by the state’s government unions. California’s public sector unions collect and spend nearly $1.0 billion per year. They donate hundreds of millions every election cycle to political campaigns, and almost every donation is to a Democrat. If they make donations to Republicans, it is in the handful of safe Republican districts where they want to make sure they control the Republican.

But if you’re a government worker who’s not a fan of the candidates and issues backed by the unions’ political arm, there is some good news: Union membership is declining, along with union revenue, thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2018 Janus ruling that found non-union government workers cannot be required to pay union fees as a condition of working in public service. This new freedom has inevitably led to fewer dues paying members. How much?

Through Public Records Act requests, the California Policy Center (CPC) has accessed publicly available payroll records of major government agencies across the state to analyze trends in payroll withholding for union dues.  CPC, which has worked since 2018 to assist public employees to withdraw their union membership, estimates the Janus ruling may have cost California’s government unions over $300 million per year.

Despite the Janus decision and its impact, the fact remains that even if their financial power is somewhat diminished, government unions easily remain the most powerful political players in California.

The big players at the state level donating directly to the Democratic party should surprise nobody. Again, a look at donations through 9/24/22 reveals: Cal Fire ($330,000), California Federation of Teachers ($235,000), California Professional Firefighters ($478,000), California Association of Electrical Workers ($450,000), California State Council of Laborers ($170,000), California State Council of Service Employees ($605,000), California State Pipe Trades Council ($250,000), California Teachers Association ($845,000), Faculty for Our University’s Future ($178,000),  SEIU affiliates ($627,000), Sheet Metal Workers Local Union 104 ($235,000), Southwest Regional Council of Carpenters ($300,000), State Building and Construction Trades Council  ($625,000), and dozens of smaller union contributors.

If you have a look at the contributions flowing into the California Democratic Party and compare them to the contributions that the California Republican Party attracts, it isn’t even close. For this election season, January 1, 2022 through September 24, the Democrats collected $19.1 million, and the Republicans less than half that, $9.5 million.

Even this understates Democratic power, however, because the Democrats were sitting on a substantial war chest, and the Republicans were not. As of 9/24, 2022, the California Democratic Party reported $29 million in available cash; the Republicans, only $4.0 million. Going into the final weeks, California’s Democrat state party had seven times as much money as the Republican state party.

In every quasi-competitive race, examples of Democrats wielding overwhelming spending supremacy are plentiful. For example, in Assembly District 7, Democrat Ken Cooley had raised $1.6 million through 9/24, while his opponent, Republican Josh Hoover had raised $650,000. In contested Assembly District 27, Republican Mark Pazin collected $733,000 in contributions through 9/24, while Democrat Esmeralda Soria collected nearly 1.4 million. In the supposedly contested Senate District 16, Republican David Shepard raised $425,000 and as of 9/24 had $30,000 left. Democrat Melissa Hurtado raised $2.3 million and had $546,000 left. These disparities are typical.

When it comes to top offices, the financial advantage Democrats wield over Republicans is laughable. Newsom’s campaign account had a 9/24 balance of $23 million, 53 times as much money as Brian Dahle, the Republican challenger, whose ending cash balance on 9/24 was $408,000.

The same story applies across every race for high office. On 9/24, for Lieutenant Governor, the Democrat’s cash was $4.0 million, the Republican had $9,000; for Attorney General, on 9/24 the Democrat had $2.1 million, the Republican had $711,000, and for Secretary of State, the Democrat’s cash was $920,000, while the Republican’s was a whopping $102

And this analysis does not include the millions of dollars government unions have dumped into Democratic campaigns in the final month leading up to the election. 

With hundreds of millions to spend every year on politics, California’s government unions are everywhere. But government union influence doesn’t end there. It extends into every city and county, every special district and every school board. 

There is not one race in California where government unions aren’t interested in the outcome, so long as the successful candidate will then be in a position to “negotiate” over pay and benefits for public employees. This is the world that a virtually unassailable coalition of special interests in California has created. To protect their empire, they massively outspend Republican candidates. It works.


Edward Ring is a senior fellow with California Policy Center. 

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