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Did Incumbent Democrat Schaefer give $30K to buy Republican support?

When scandal engulfs a party’s endorsed candidate, questions naturally arise where that party draws the line for stripping an endorsement. In 2020, that line was hazy for the California Republican Party. They stood by endorsements for many QAnon-affiliated, militia-friendly and conspiracy theory-subscribing candidates. Yet they stripped Central Valley Congressional candidate Ted Howze for “hateful rhetoric” online that demeaned Muslims, mocked a school shooting survivor, and insinuated top Democrats committed murder.

But in 2022, the California Democrat Party (CADEM) is now straddling its own hazy line in the case of scandal-plagued California Board of Equalization incumbent Mike Schaefer (D-District 4). Four years ago, the party did not endorse him amid a checkered history featuring a domestic abuse conviction, being a heavily fined “slumlord,” and disbarment in two states. Yet this past March, he shocked many by winning the state party endorsement.

Schaefer even retained that endorsement after revealed he admitted lying in speeches and on his official candidate statement about being endorsed by Gov. Gavin Newsom and others. Now SactoPolitico has newly revealed Schaefer last month gave $30,000 to a San Diego-area GOP-aligned group in an apparent move to assist in his re-election over a fellow Democrat. But so far the Democratic Party has been cryptic at best about whether this might cross any line for them.

“Democrats should support qualified Democrats,” CADEM Communications Director Shery Yang responded in a written statement.

This dodged the central questions about whether CADEM condones any of this behavior and might consider stripping its endorsement of Schaefer. Yang’s brief statement also referred SactoPolitico to a section of the CADEM bylaws, but these concerned “removal from membership” not removal of an endorsement.

In the Nov. 8 general election, Schaefer faces fellow Democrat David Dodson, a 30-year staff veteran of the Board of Equalization who manages the agency’s Southern California office. Dodson also ran in the 2018 primary and narrowly failed to make top 2, finishing 2.1 percentage points behind Schaefer.

The California Board of Equalization administers the state’s property tax system

and oversees the 58 county assessors. Its five-member board consists of the State Controller and representatives elected from four equally divided districts. Schaefer’s District 4 comprises the southern-most counties of Imperial, Orange, Riverside and San Diego, and a small part of southwest San Bernardino County including Chino Hills, Ontario and Rancho Cucamonga.

State campaign finance filings showed Schaefer’s campaign donated $30,000 on Aug. 19 to Citizens for a Better East County. “East County” refers to the less populated eastern region of San Diego County that includes largely conservative voting communities such as El Cajon and La Mesa. A member of the Citizens for a Better East County confirmed they are a GOP-leaning political committee. Their donation history going back a dozen years also shows support only for conservative candidates and causes. This included its largest donation of $12,500 given to the San Deigo County Republican Party just a month after it received the Schaefer campaign donation.

Despite this, the Sachaefer campaign denies Citizens for a Better East County is a Republican-aligned group or that its donation will help Republicans. Campaign manager Chris Castillo told SactoPolitico by email, “I want to be clear Citizens for a Better East County is not a Republican Organization. Vice Chair Schaefer has invested thousands of dollars into Democratic causes and candidates to help them increase our majorities and win!”

When reached directly, Schaefer said, “I don’t really have a comment on this.” He suggested he left those details to Castillo and his campaign consultant Gary Gartner (who is also Schaefer’s chief of staff). “I’ve been talking in general with them about the campaign, but I am not familiar with any specific donation.”

Schaefer is self-financing his re-election campaign. Through the end of June, he had donated $127,000 to himself. Thus the $30,000 donation represents nearly 25% of all his campaign funds. By comparison, according to federal and state campaign donation records, Schaefer and his campaign appear to have donated this cycle a combined $5,725 to Democratic groups and candidates – or less than 20% of his donation to the East County GOP group.

Schaeffer’s opponent, Dodson, said he wasn’t shocked by Schaefer’s donation given his history in this race and previous to that.

“I think it is clearly an attempt to buy influence among Republican leaders to try to solicit some of the Republican vote his way,” Dodson said. “I am not sure if he may be trying to influence some of the Republican mailers going out to support Schaefer or have influential Republicans spread his name around.”

Castillo denied this. In a separate statement, he said:

“Mike Schaefer is working to create more opportunities to increase voter turnout in the refugee and immigrant communities in East San Diego County and throughout the five counties in his huge district.
“Our contribution helps all Democrats to expand our voter base after the recent statewide redistricting which has created new opportunities to increase voter participation.
“Vice Chair Mike Schaefer says: ‘We are winning in these communities; we are increasing Democratic majorities to be a leader in that effort.’ ”

However, no representative of Citizens for a Better East County would speak on the record about the Schaefer campaign’s claim their group is working to increase Democratic voter turnout. In response to the later $12,500 donation from Citizens for a Better East County, executive director of The San Diego County Republican Party Jordan Gascon denied any involvement in the Schaefer race. He said none of the donation they received is earmarked for any specific purpose, and “as for Schaefer, we do not support Democrats.”

Many San Diego-area Democrats responded with shock to the donation news. This included Ryan Darsey, vice president of San Diego Democrats for Equality. The group previously endorsed Dodson and rated Schaefer as unqualified.

“I haven’t seen anything like this before,” Darsey said. “I think it’s hypocritical to say you want to turn out Democratic votes while you donate to a group that in turn donates to other groups that go against our Democratic values. This includes against LGBTQ rights, against worker rights, against reproductive freedom. A real Democrat who wants to turn out Democratic support would not be donating to Republican groups.”

Donation records show Citizens for a Better East County has also donated to the Lincoln Club of San Diego County ($7,000), former Republican San Diego council member Carl DeMaio’s political action committee Reform California ($2,500), and San Diego area GOP State Senate Candidate Brian Jones ($1,550).

East County Democratic Club member Bonnie Burns Price said if Schaefer’s goal was truly to turn out more Democratic votes, she could think of many far better Democratic groups to give to. This included giving to the Democratic get-out-of-the vote efforts for which she volunteers.

“He could give it to the Democratic Party, which always needs money. Or give to our ‘Go Teams.’ We need the money to print door hangers, feed our volunteers, go door to door, texting, and calling. It is so important. Democracy is on the ballot. Women’s rights are on the ballot,” said Price, who is a resident of the unincorporated East County community of Spring Valley. The East County Democratic Club has also endorsed Dodson.

She added, “If we had more money, we could also do more advertising. In the east area, we could use big billboards and promote our candidates. But we don’t have that kind of money, but the Republicans do. When Duncan Hunter was in Congress representing this area, he had a huge billboard on I-8 where he was promoting himself and Donald Trump.”

Dodson said both Schaefer’s donation and having lied about endorsements from top elected Democrats demonstrate Schaefer isn’t loyal to the Democratic Party.

“If you look at [Schaefer’s] life history, you see him shifting back and forth between parties, whatever he thinks is convenient. Frankly, I think he got an insider within the state Democratic Party to get him the party endorsement. Then once the party flyers are already printed, that’s when he decides he is going to chase after the Republicans by giving them money. That’s the way it looks to me. He’s all about just himself.”

Darsey said he hopes this latest Schaefer news will influence the state Democratic Party to respond more strongly than it has so far.

“I would hope that the state Democratic Party would revoke that endorsement. How much more will it take for Democrats to see that just because Mike Schaefer calls himself a Democrat, his actions show the only real Democrat in this race is David Dodson,” he said.

SactoPolitico also shared with the California Democratic Party the full statement from the Schaefer campaign about their donation benefiting all Democrats, but the party had no further comment.

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