How Much Would It Cost to Buy an Election in Palo Alto?

In Palo Alto, we’ve always done things a little differently.

Everyone knows the national image — the center of Silicon Valley, right next to Stanford, one of the most expensive places in the U.S. (median home price: $2.5 million), home to a who’s who of tech (Mark Zuckerberg, Larry Page, Tim Cook).

But with all that money, all that technology, all those famous people, Palo Alto often wants to be an ordinary American town.

Every May, half the city lines up along University Avenue for a G-rated May Fete parade. Breakfast, lunch, or dinner, there’s always a crowd at the Peninsula Creamery, a restaurant and ice cream shop that feels straight out of the 1950s. And in a nod to good old Midwestern values, campaigns for City Council have tended to center around chili cookoffs rather than fancy cocktail parties.

The good news is that May Fete is still going strong and Peninsula Creamery isn’t going anywhere. As for the friendly chili cookoff political culture? Well, here’s what’s happened since October started:

  • Michael and Paula Rantz have given $30,200 to Arthur Keller, Lydia Kou, and the Palo Altans for Sensible Zoning PAC.
  • Gabrielle and Thomas Layton have given $33,600 to Arthur Keller, Lydia Kou, and the Palo Altans for Sensible Zoning PAC.
  • Simone and Tench Coxe have given $31,200 to Arthur Keller, Lydia Kou, and the Palo Altans for Sensible Zoning PAC.
  • Asher Waldfogel and Helyn McLean have given $31,500 to Arthur Keller, Lydia Kou, and the Palo Altans for Sensible Zoning PAC.
  • Mary Ann and Leonard Baker have given $31,800 to Arthur Keller, Lydia Kou, and the Palo Altans for Sensible Zoning PAC.

In just two weeks, five wealthy families have dumped over $158,000 into the hands of two conservative City Council candidates. Much of the money was funneled to a Political Action Committee (PAC). That $158,000 from five households represents more money than the other 67,000 residents of Palo Alto have given to all other nine campaigns combined.

Within days, Kou and Keller started putting their money to work — with attacks on their opponents.

The first negative ad was a video attacking Adrian Fine. Fine, the Chair of the Planning and Transportation Commission and a favorite of the local Democratic party, is favored by many to win a City Council seat this November.

The second attack came in an email from the PAC (known as Palo Altans for Sensible Zoning) and was particularly audacious. Flush from the recent donations, the PAC sent out an email with the subject line “Don’t vote for Developer Candidates! Follow the money…”

This “follow the money” email did not mention the recent six-figure bankrolling by the five wealthy families. Instead, the PAC questioned the more modest fundraising efforts by four candidates endorsed by the Democratic Party: Fine, Greg Tanaka, incumbent Liz Kniss, and Don McDougall. The combined amount donated by local developers to all four Democratic candidates is less than the Rantz family gave Kou/Keller; less than the Layton family gave Kou/Keller; less than the Coxe family gave Kou/Keller; less than the Waldfogel/McLean family gave Kou/Keller; less than the Baker family gave Kou/Keller.

If Lydia Kou and Arthur Keller are worried about a few people having undue influence on public policy, it’s pretty clear where they should look.

With $158,000 in new donations, Kou and Keller have a lot more money in the bank — and Palo Altans should prepare for a barrage of slickly produced negative ads.

It is deeply ironic that Palo Alto’s entry into big-money, PAC-driven negative campaigning was led by Lydia Kou and Arthur Keller. Much of Kou and Keller’s campaigns have been about keeping Palo Alto the same: preserving neighborhood character by not building new housing and doing everything we can to avoid turning into a bigger city.

But with fundraising, Kou and Keller have opted for a new and less innocent approach. Six figure donations and negative ads are not small-town tactics — and Palo Altans may soon wonder what’s hit them.

And after that storm hits, we’ll find out the answer to the key question: is $158,000 from five families enough to buy seats on Palo Alto’s City Council for Lydia Kou and Arthur Keller?