Boys in the Band: Who are the Democrats Fighting to Stop Rent Control in California?

Housing Is A Human Right
Housing Is A Human Right
7 min readDec 1, 2023

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Gov. Gavin Newsom (left) and Ace Smith

The mainstream media rarely, if ever, exposes this ugly fact, but a group of powerful Democrats has been carrying out Big Real Estate’s unscrupulous, multi-million-dollar push to kill the expansion of rent control in California. Seniors on fixed incomes, working-class families, labor union members, and millions of other tenants may end up paying the life-altering consequences.

For the past six years, California Gov. Gavin Newsom and Democratic political consultant Ace Smith (above photo to the right) and other Democratic strategists have been working closely with corporate landlords and their front group, the California Apartment Association, to ensure that the real estate industry can keep charging wildly inflated, unfair rents, which have fueled the housing affordability and homelessness crises.

It all started in 2018 when a broad coalition of housing justice groups, social justice organizations, labor unions, and numerous Democratic politicians, including U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders, aimed to repeal statewide rent control restrictions in California through Proposition 10. Housing Is A Human Right and its parent organization, AIDS Healthcare Foundation, helped lead the Yes on Prop 10 campaign.

Corporate landlords such as Essex Property Trust, Equity Residential, and Blackstone Group fought back, funneling millions in campaign cash to the main No on Prop 10 committee that was sponsored by the California Apartment Association. Enter Newsom and Democratic consultants Ace Smith, Jim DeBoo, and Steve Maviglio.

Jim DeBoo

Newsom publicly opposed Yes on Prop 10, and Smith’s firm, SCN Strategies, raked in at least $105,000 in consulting fees from No on Prop 10: Californians for Responsible Housing sponsored by the California Apartment Association. Smith, in other words, was Big Real Estate’s hired gun.

Smith wasn’t the only one who prospered by working with corporate landlords to stop the pro-rent control efforts of community activists and labor unions.

Newsom, who was running for governor in 2018, grabbed at least $400,000 in campaign cash from Big Real Estate, including contributions from William Witte of Related California, George Marcus of Marcus & Millichap, the California Association of Realtors, the California Apartment Association, and the Apartment Association of Greater Los Angeles.

Democratic consultants Jim DeBoo of DeBoo Communications and Steve Maviglio of Forza Communications also worked for the corporate landlords’ No on Prop 10 campaign, charging top fees for their services.

In the end, the real estate industry shelled out a whopping $77.3 million to kill Proposition 10 with the help of Newsom, Smith, DeBoo, and Maviglio — and the housing affordability and homelessness crises only worsened as corporate landlords kept charging higher and higher rents. A recent study by the University of California San Francisco found that, more than anything, sky-high rents are forcing people into the streets.

In 2020, a second coalition of housing justice groups, social justice organizations, labor unions, and Democratic politicians pushed forward another ballot measure, Proposition 21, to end statewide rent control restrictions. Housing Is A Human Right and AIDS Healthcare Foundation again led the pro-rent control battle. And again Newsom, Smith, DeBoo, and Maviglio joined forces with corporate landlords and the California Apartment Association to stop the grassroots coalition — it was another big payday for the Democratic governor and political consultants.

Leading up to the 2020 election, a time when Newsom was raising money for a recall fight, numerous real estate insiders such as the California Building Industry Association, Jeffrey Worthe, Robert Friedman, Jaclyn Safier, William Witte, and others delivered at least $165,000 in campaign contributions to the California governor.

Newsom also knew he needed even more Big Real Estate cash in 2021 when the recall vote would take place — and then raise money for his 2022 re-election campaign. What did he do? Newsom took a more active role in stopping the grassroots push to end statewide rent control restrictions, appearing in a misleading No on Prop 21 TV ad and allowing his image to be used on the No on Prop 21 website.

It paid off. Between 2021 and 2022, the California Building Industry Association, the California Apartment Association, and hundreds of real estate insiders flooded Newsom’s campaign coffers with contributions.

Steve Maviglio

For Democrat Ace Smith, his firm, now named SCRB Strategies, bagged at least $140,000 from No on Prop 21: Californians for Responsible Housing. That committee was sponsored by the California Apartment Association and bankrolled by numerous real estate heavyweights, including Equity Residential, Essex Property Trust, and AvalonBay Communities. And Steve Maviglio, the highly controversial Democratic flack, grabbed at least $142,000 from No on Prop 21.

In addition, Democrat Jim DeBoo was a paid lobbyist for the California Apartment Association and hauled in tens of thousands in consulting fees from No on Prop 21. DeBoo then became Newsom’s chief of staff in January 2021.

By November 2020, corporate landlords shelled out nearly $100 million to successfully defeat Proposition 21, with Newsom, Smith, Maviglio, and DeBoo raking in piles of cash from Big Real Estate.

At the same time, homeless deaths in the Los Angeles area, which were fueled by excessive rents, increased for the sixth year in a row and the COVID-19 pandemic was slamming California tenants who lost work and couldn’t afford astronomical rents.

Recently, more Democratic insiders have been hired by the California Apartment Association and corporate landlords to stop AIDS Healthcare Foundation’s work on expanding rent control.

AHF and Housing Is A Human Right are leading another grassroots coalition to repeal statewide rent control restrictions through a 2024 initiative called the Justice for Renters Act. Big Real Estate responded with a bogus ballot measure called the Protect Patients Now Act. If passed, it would stop AHF from spending money on initiatives.

Sean Clegg

AHF pushed back by filing a lawsuit to put “an immediate stop to the California Apartment Association’s and Executive Director Tom Bannon’s unconstitutional, deceptive ballot measure targeting AHF over its support of rent control,” the organization said in a November 28 press release.

In the meantime, guess who’s getting rich? Democratic consultants Ace Smith and Sean Clegg, who run Bearstar Strategies; Democratic strategist and Newsom insider Nathan Click; and Democratic consultant Jim Messina of The Messina Group. Protect Patients Now, sponsored by the California Apartment Association, hired them all to do Big Real Estate’s dirty work.

Ace Smith, Sean Clegg, Nathan Click, and Jim Messina are the very definition of Corporate Democrats. That goes for Jim DeBoo and Steve Maviglio, too.

As hired guns for Big Real Estate’s Protect Patients Now campaign, Smith, Clegg, Click, and Messina are now strategizing, behind the scenes, to stop AHF’s participation in the democratic process.

Additionally, Click is also the spokesman for Californians for Responsible Housing sponsored by the California Apartment Association. That committee, according to a CAA press release, has been re-formed to stop the 2024 Justice for Renters Act. In all likelihood, Bearstar Strategies and The Messina Group will join Click to work on Big Real Estate’s opposition campaign to stop the Justice for Renters Act.

Nathan Click

Smith, Clegg, Click, and Messina may also be engineering, behind the scenes, the shady shell game that the California Apartment Association and a group of corporate landlords are carrying out to fund the Protect Patients Now committee.

Starting in September 2023, the California Apartment Association Issues Committee started dumping millions in campaign cash into the coffers of Protect Patients Now. So if concerned voters look at campaign filings on the California Secretary of State website, they’ll only see the California Apartment Association Issues Committee contributing to Protect Patients Now. That’s purposefully shady, trying to mislead California voters.

Because corporate landlords have been contributing millions to the California Apartment Association Issues Committee, which then moves Big Real Estate cash to Protect Patients Now. In other words, the CAA is trying to hide the fact that corporate landlords are essentially funding Protect Patients Now. Just take a look at the California Secretary of State website.

Between June 2023 and November 2023, state campaign filings show that Essex Property Trust handed over $1.7 million to the CAA Issues Committee; Equity Residential delivered $1.6 million; Spieker Companies shelled out $589,276; AvalonBay Communities gave $300,000; Prometheus Real Estate Group delivered $300,000, and Camden Development delivered $108,050. Woodmont Real Estate Services, Frank T. Suryan Jr., and UDR also gave sizable contributions.

Then between September 2023 and November 2023, the CAA Issues Committee contributed $350,000, $100,000, $375,000, $2.3 million, and $400,000 to Protect Patients Now.

That sleazy shell game is happening under the watch of Ace Smith, Sean Clegg, Nathan Click, and Jim Messina. It looks as though the Corporate Democrats aren’t much for transparency either.

Jim Messina

Since California is ground zero for the national movement to expand rent control in the United States, Smith, Clegg, Click, and Messina’s big-dollar alliance with corporate landlords may be one of the biggest Democratic scandals in the country. After all, the destructive, greed-driven agenda of Big Real Estate is destroying the lives of millions of middle- and working-class tenants in California and around the U.S.

And Gov. Gavin Newsom may also join Big Real Estate’s multi-million-dollar effort to stop the Justice for Renters Act, turning his back on seniors, first-responders, union members, and single mothers who are drowning under wildly inflated rents charged by predatory landlords.

But, in the end, it shouldn’t be surprising. Newsom and Ace Smith and the other Democratic consultants have a disturbing track record of doing anything for corporate landlords when the money is right.

Patrick Range McDonald, the author of this article, is the award-winning advocacy journalist for Housing Is A Human Right.

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Housing Is A Human Right
Housing Is A Human Right

Housing Is A Human Right is the housing advocacy division of AIDS Healthcare Foundation. We fight for what’s right.