The Supreme Court rendered limits on individual campaign contributions unconstitutional in Citizens United eight years ago, and the effects are being felt today at the local level in Santa  Cruz. 

While conversations about political spending largely focus on national and state races, the influence of money can also be felt at the level of municipal elections, including in Santa Cruz. 

“We’re definitely at a huge disadvantage because of the money flowing in from outside the city,” said Movement for Housing Justice (MHJ) organizer Zav Hershfield. “Even if we were only having to contend with the local real estate agents and landlords, we’d still be  outspent.”

In Santa Cruz, discussion of money and politics recently centered around the disparity in funds between the campaigns for and against Measure M, the rent control and just cause eviction policy on the upcoming election ballot. MHJ, the campaign for Measure M, raised $38,000 compared to nearly $800,000 raised by Santa Cruz Together, the campaign against  Measure  M.

About half of Santa Cruz Together’s campaign funds originated from the National Association of Realtors, based in Chicago, and the California Association of Realtors in  Los  Angeles.

“There are serious power imbalances within the city of Santa Cruz based off of how much money someone has, and the amount of money they’re able to raise,” said City Council candidate and community organizer  Drew  Glover.

The influence of money can also be observed in City Council races. For instance, candidate Greg Larson funded his campaign in part with a self-financed $10,000 loan. Larson raised the most money of all 10 candidates, and nearly tied incumbent Richelle Noroyan in spending, according to campaign finance documents filed  with  the  city.

“His lawn signs are appearing all over town. His presence is pretty high profile,” said MHJ organizer and UC Santa Cruz fourth-year Julian Parayno-Stoll. “Yet, this is someone that virtually nobody knew up until he started to run for City Council, and he’s probably going to buy a seat on the council unless there’s a remarkable  change.”

History and research clearly show money does matter in politics. It isn’t, however, always determinant of electoral outcomes.

“There are a number of instances in the past where lots of money was thrown into an issue and it didn’t pass, and there are other instances where very little money was put into an issue and it managed to pass,” said NBC political analyst and UCSC lecturer Larry Gerston. “[…] If you’re looking to pass or defeat an initiative, it’s better to have money than not, but there’s hardly a lock on that.”

Voters bucked big money at the state level in 2016 in approval of Proposition 56, a $2 increase of the tobacco tax, despite the tobacco industry investing millions of dollars into the campaign against it. In Richmond, California, voters elected a slate of progressive candidates to defeat a troupe of other candidates bankrolled by local industrial giant Chevron Corp in 2014, despite being outfunded by nearly  $3 million.

The population of Santa Cruz is by nature especially primed to activate at the grassroots level, and big money might not prevail.

“Here’s a very unusual city, that largely revolves around students. […] My guess is that they’re around 15 percent of the vote,” Gerston said of Santa Cruz. “If this group is really mobilized, and I mean mobilized, that means into the ballot box, that could make a difference.”