Independent expenditure campaigns spend big to influence rent board, District 2 city council race

By law, independent expenditure campaigns must act independently of the candidates they are backing. They can’t communicate or even coordinate with those running for office.

A voter fills out his ballot at the St. Clement's Episcopal Church polling location in Claremont.
A voter fills out his ballot on Super Tuesday, March 4, 2020. Photo: Kelly Sullivan

A new independent expenditure committee is throwing tens of thousands of dollars behind the Homeowners for Berkeley Rent Board slate, joining another independent expenditure (IE) group backed by real estate interests.

High View Strategies, a Sacramento-based public relations firm, contributed $22,984 for web and print mailings to back Bahman Ahmadi, Soulmaz Panahi, Dan McDunn, Wendy Saenz Hood Neufeld and Pawel Moldenhawer, according to campaign finance disclosures. The contributions were made through the “Committee for Ethical Housing, Supporting Ahmadi, Panahi, McDunn, Saenz Hood Neufeld and Moldenhawer for Rent Stabilization Board 2020, Committee Major Funding Provided by Highview Strategies.”

Russell Lowery, the managing partner of High View Strategies and the former chief of staff of California’s Board of Equalization, confirmed to Berkeleyside that he made the donations. Lowery said he became aware of how the Berkeley Rent Stabilization Board and its staff treated African American businessmen when he did some work for a Berkeley-based client, which he would not name. Lowery said the culture “was hostile to African Americans,” and not responsive, which led him to back a group of homeowners he thought would be more respectful.

“Here’s my chance to reach out to the community and tell them what I know, said Lowery, who added he hopes to do more work in Berkeley in the future.


Lowery is also the executive director of the California Rental Housing Association, a trade group of 16,000 property owners that calls itself the “voice for the rental industry.” Lowery said he was not working on its behalf and the work he has done for CRHA did not lead him to make the independent contributions. However, Lowery’s firm did work to bring property owners together to craft an effective message to fight rent control, according to the High View Strategies website.

Earlier this month, Berkeleyside reported that the National Association of Realtors Fund had spent $80,800 to support four of the five members of the Homeowners for Berkeley Rent Board slate. No funds were spent on Moldenhawer and the bulk of the funds — $40,459 — went for online ads supporting Ahmadi.

Now those figures have increased, according to recent campaign filings. The fund has spent a total of $107,516 on those four candidates, with the bulk, $54,143, going for election ads for Ahmadi.

Ahmadi, an engineer who said he owns one small rental property, told Berkeleyside he doesn’t know why these independent expenditure campaigns are backing him.

By law, IE campaigns must act independently of the candidates they are backing. They can’t communicate or even coordinate with those running for office.

Funding to try to unseat Councilmember Davila

Another real estate group, the California Real Estate Independent Expenditure Campaign, also increased its donations to try to prevent Berkeley City Councilmember Cheryl Davila from serving another four-year term. The group spent $4,530 on phone banking on Oct. 9 and $6,063 on a mailer on Oct. 20, bringing its expenditures against Davila to $25,738, according to campaign finance records.

Davila was helped, however, by the independent expenditure group, East Bay Working Families, a coalition of unions and community groups. That IE spent $4,530 on phone banking in support of Davila’s campaign on Oct. 9, according to records.

Berkeleyside previously reported that an independent expenditure campaign had spent $3,402 on behalf of two of Davila’s challengers, Alex Sharenko and Terry Taplin, according to documents filed with the city. The IE called “Berkeley Neighbors for Affordability, Committee Major Funding from Bay Area Housing Advocacy Coalition, Supporting Alex Sharenko and Terry Taplin for District 2 City Council 2020,” has now raised $19,900 to spend on the two D2 candidates’ behalf. The three officers listed on the filing form are housing activists in San Francisco: Matthew Alvarez and James Sutton work for the Sutton Law Firm and Todd David is the executive director of the San Francisco Housing Action Coalition.

The Sutton Law firm also processed the campaign filing work for High View Strategies IE.

Another independent expenditure group is run by an affordable housing developer John Elberling, according to numerous news reports, and has contributed $5,567 to three ballot measures. The “Tenants and Owners Development Corporation and its affiliated entity Yerba Buena Neighborhood Consortium LLC,” has spent $1,800 in support of Measure HH, the utility users’ tax, $1,800 in support of Measure GG, the tax on transportation network company trips, and $3,967 in support of MM, the Rent Stabilization Ordinance.

The other IE, “Campaign for a Safe Berkeley Yes on Measure II,” (new police oversight commission) spent $1,580 on Oct. 13.

Independent Expenditure funds must file campaign finance statements within 24 hours of making an expenditure. New campaign finance statements from individual candidates are due this week.

Frances Dinkelspiel is co-founder and executive editor of Berkeleyside. Email: frances@berkeleyside.com.