Under the radar, behind the scenes

Though August in Sacramento is typically synonymous with political thumb-twiddling, there is an election afoot this month, and it has all the usual suspects: labor group endorsements, shoe-leather campaigning, and even an independent expenditure committee. But you’d never know it.

That’s because the election is for the retirees’ seat on the 13-member CalPERS board of directors. While six of the 13 seats on the board are elected positions, the campaigns themselves are usually low-key affairs, even though a great deal is at stake.

People would be wise to pay attention to the PERS election, says Jim McRitchie, a pension-fund watchdog who runs “When you figure that CalPERS board members have one-thirteenth control over $250 billion, that’s a lot more powerful than an Assembly member in my mind.”

The candidates’ names on ballots mailed out Monday are barely known outside the circle of retirees who have received mailers, flyers and volunteer phone calls in the past several weeks. Only two of the candidates, Henry Jones and Perry Kenny, have formed campaign committees, both of which reported less than $50,000 in contribution receipts. Most of the money came from unions and small individual donors.

But make no mistake: This election is important. For one, it is the first time the PERS seat representing retirees has been up for grabs since 1991. Its current occupant, Robert Carlson, has decided not to seek another term after serving on the board for over 35 years and running unopposed in the last three elections.

Though all three candidates have strong labor backgrounds, their stories and supporters are very different.

Kenny, 61, of Sacramento is a former tax consultant and has served as California State Employees Association president and director of Service Employees International Local 1000. He has been endorsed by CSEA, the public employee umbrella organization that represents 140,000 members.

Jones, 67, of Los Angeles was formerly chief financial officer of the $7 billion-a-year Los Angeles Unified School District, where he started as a custodian in 1960. He has strong ties to SEIU and the California School Employees Association, both of which have endorsed him.

And Susan Bergeron-Vance, the third candidate for the seat, retired as finance director for the city of Santa Fe Springs. She has been endorsed by the city’s public employee and firefighters unions.

The distribution of endorsements between the two front-runners holds some shades of politics past between some labor organizations.

Though CSEA has stood strong for Kenny, who is a past president of the organization, SEIU’s State Council has helped support Jones’ candidacy.

SEIU Local 1000, the largest public-employee-bargaining unit in the state and an affiliate of both CSEA and SEIU State Council, is staying out of the fray, which they say is purely a retirees’ race. “Local 1000 has not made any contributions or endorsements in the race. We’re a part of the SEIU State Council, and they are supporting Henry Jones,” says Jim Hard, president of Local 1000.

Cathy Hackett, secretary-treasurer of the local, was on the candidate interview board for the state council and, Hard says, “It was a unanimous decision that Jones was the best choice.”

McRitchie says the history is slightly stickier than that. When Perry was president of CSEA, McRitchie says, Perry tried to remove Hard and Hackett, both members of the movement to gain autonomy for Local 1000.

The two unions have had icy relations since. In addition, CSEA’s bylaws state that if the organization has endorsed a candidate for office, their affiliates may not endorse the candidate’s opponent.

The wide-open seat has spurred substantial fundraising on the campaign trail. According to forms filed with the secretary of state last week, Kenny has raised nearly $17,500 in contributions to date–a considerable amount for campaign flyers and maintenance of his Web site. A good portion of the money was raised from individual retirees, while the state workers union CSEA kicked in $3,600 and CDF Firefighters $2,000.

Kenny, who has received endorsements from three sitting board members including Carlson, faces a potential finance-arms race with opponent Jones. Campaign statements filed by Jones were not immediately available for viewing, but the candidate claimed his war chest was in the “high 30-thousands.”

Even more unusual is an independent-expenditure committee formed to
support Jones, which has to date spent over $100,000 on mailers, phone banks and flyers encouraging eligible retirees to vote for him. The committee, sponsored by the State Council of the SEIU, the Retired Public Employees Association of California, and the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, is not related to the candidate’s campaign, and can therefore accept unlimited contributions.

SEIU’s State Council and SEIU International and AFSCME each have contributed $25,000 to the committee, a hefty sum considering the size of his opponents’ funds. Jones, who was not aware of the contributions or the committee until Capitol Weekly inquired about them, says he’s heard about it from his supporters. “People keep telling me they got a call or a mailer, and I tell them I don’t know where it came from, but if it’s saying to vote for me that’s great,” says Jones.

Both candidates, however, agree that campaigning on the ground is even more important in a small race like this. “I’ve been going out and meeting the people

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