Among the scores of campaign mailers appearing in San Luis Obispo County voters’ mailboxes during this election season, one claims to be a “progressive voter guide.”
The mailer features pictures of several state Democratic candidates like Kevin De Leon and Gavin Newsom. Underneath each picture is a short description of that candidate’s platforms. Across the top is an illustration of raised fists and protest signs. And it’s from “Feel the Bern, Progressive Voter Guide.”
Seemingly all very progressive. Except on the back, it advises the recipient to vote no on G. That’s San Luis Obispo County’s Measure G, which aims to ban fracking and expanded oil production in the county. Big Oil has spent several million dollars trying to defeat it. The SLO County Progressives endorse a Yes on G vote.
The fine print on the mailer features a disclaimer that Feel the Bern is not an official political party or organization.
Nick Andre, the co-chair of the SLO County Progressives say it’s not sent from his group.
“It's absolutely not affiliated with the SLO County Progressives,” Andre said. “It's simply just an advertising agency that charges people to be placed onto this mailer. So it is definitely deceiving. It has absolutely nothing to do with any legitimate progressive organization.”
False or misleading advertising of services and products is illegal under the California Business and Professions Code. But those same rules don’t apply to political campaigns. Candidate statements and advertisements are considered political speech, protected by the First Amendment.
Andre said these types of red herring campaign mailers have been used statewide for years. But he thinks it’s a relatively new phenomenon in San Luis Obispo County.
According to state required campaign finance reports, the same people behind the current Feel the Bern mailer, Gould & Orellana, LLC, were paid by the consulting company working for the No on G campaign, Winner & Mandabach Campaigns LLC. And that the slate mailer company was paid to oppose a measure in San Luis Obispo County.
The mailer may be blatantly designed to be deceptive, but it is legal. San Luis Obispo County Clerk-Recorder Tommy Gong said the county elections office is only charged with running the election, not policing campaigns.
“We do direct people to contact the FPPC to file a complaint [about a fraudulent mailer],” Gong said. “They could do so at the Secretary of State's office. They could even take it to the Federal Trade Commission, I understand, but there really are no provisions of anything that I can do.”
State campaign finance records show that David Gould’s Feel the Bern slate mailer organization is based out of Long Beach, and has done business with political campaigns across southern California. The No on G is Gould’s only campaign finance activity in San Luis Obispo County since the June primary election.