“In many ways, the Lincoln Club is the Republican Party in San Diego County. Without them, you would not have [Mayor Jerry] Sanders, you would not have [Councilmember Lorie] Zapf. A lot of electeds need them in order to get to where they are,” said Steve Rivera, who managed the campaign of Howard Wayne, Zapf’s opponent, in 2010. “In many ways, they’ve followed the model of most conservative organizations, in which you don’t plan for the next battle, you plan for the next war.”
Initially called the Golden Eagle Club when it started nearly three decades ago, the Lincoln Club, said former President Scott barnett, was “moribund” when he took the helm in 2002.
“It was pretty much dead when I got there,” he said, “and T.J. [Zane] has moved the club to be a higher, more significant player.”
Zane, 39, was hired by the club in 2007. During his tenure, the Lincoln Club was party to a lawsuit that successfully sought to end local restrictions on campaign spending and also launched a separate slate-mailer committee. In 2010, that committee spent more than $300,000 on mailers described in the club’s promotional video as “innovative.”
Wayne was a target of a series of unusually large, tabloid-size mailers.
“The postman, in order to get the mail to fit in the mailbox, they’d usually get the other mail, slip it into the tabloid, fold the tabloid over and then put the tabloid sheet with all the other mail into the mailbox,” Rivera said. “So, whenever someone got their mail, the first thing they would see is the tabloid sheet because all their mail was inside it.”
Though slate mailers traditionally include a long list of candidates, the Lincoln Club took advantage of a federal election rule that says mailers need to include only four items, one of which must be a ballot measure. The rules say nothing about whether those items must be given equal space. One 12-by-15-inch mailer devoted an entire side to an attack on Wayne, who was running to replace termed-out Councilmember Donna Frye, describing him as a “Big-Spending Liberal” and prominently featuring Zapf on the other side. Three much smaller boxes highlight two other candidates and one ballot measure.
“The Lincoln Club dropped, I think, 35 or 38 hit pieces in the last two weeks,” Rivera said. “In my time here in San Diego, you don’t see that. Zapf was their person. They were willing to go to the mat for her, and they did. To put out that kind of mail—they were throwing everything and the kitchen sink at Howard. It was just saturation. I haven’t seen anything like that because it’s been very cost-prohibitive.”
Political consultant John Dadian said the club is most successful when it targets its resources.
“Strategically I’ve seen the Lincoln Club mature over the years—that instead of trying to spread out their influence, they have been laser-like in keeping their focus on one or two important issues.”
Right now, that focus is on Comprehensive Pension Reform (CPR), a measure on the June ballot that would close the city of San Diego’s pension system to most new employees and instead put those employees into a 401(k)style retirement plan. CPR would also, for five years, freeze the portion of city workers’ pay that's factored into their pensions.
Dogging the measure are not only questions about its true cost-savings claims, but also the issue of its origins. The city’s white-collar labor union has filed a legal challenge arguing that Mayor Sanders used his authority and city resources to get the measure on the ballot but then dodged the state’s collective-bargaining law by getting three San Diego voters to sponsor the initiative. Those three voters were Zane, Lincoln Club treasurer April Boling and club chairman Steve Williams. And while CPR’s supporters point to the 116,000 signatures that placed the measure on the ballot, those signatures ended up costing more than $8 each. According to its most recent disclosure, the Lincoln Club contributed $270,374 to the CPR campaign in 2011.
Zane isn’t paid a salary by the Lincoln Club; instead, he charges a consulting fee through his company, PAC Management & Consulting, Inc. Campaign disclosures show that the Lincoln Club paid PAC Management $130,000 in 2010 and $136,000 in 2011. The Lincoln Club paid Zane’s wife’s business, Affairz Consulting, $14,500 last year and $15,700 in 2010, according to campaign disclosures. Zane, who would respond to CityBeat’s questions only in writing, said the board negotiated a contract with his wife in 2009 to provide meeting and event-planning services.
“The negotiation was completely independent of my involvement; the terms were fair and reasonable.”
Zane said he wasn’t paid separately to consult on CPR. “My consulting fee for the Club was for overall management services. The Political Reform Act requires that the value of service in support of an initiative be reported as an in-kind contribution…. Since a portion of my time was spent on CPR, it was reported in this manner.”
Lorena Gonzalez, secretary-treasurer and CEO of the San Diego and Imperial Counties Labor Council, said that while there’s nothing unethical about Zane being a sponsor of CPR and also working for one of the initiative’s major backers, voters should be aware of the relationship.
“Not only is he the consultant, but he actually runs the PAC,” she said.
The Lincoln Club, Gonzalez said, is part of a larger ecosystem of well-heeled interests that have money to spend and, now, fewer restrictions on how it’s spent.
“Look, everybody involved in the Lincoln Club and giving money to the Lincoln Club… they’re also giving to a number of other organizations that are hitting the same way. On the left, you have the [Democratic Party] maybe and labor. And sometimes maybe an environmental group.”
The committee opposing CPR, sponsored by the labor council, spent $153,819 in 2011. By compari son, the committee supporting CPR spent more than $1.15 million.
Gil Cabrera, former chair of the city’s Ethics Commission, who’s debated Zane publicly about campaign-finance restrictions, said the left’s own ideology is what allows groups like the Lincoln Club to wield so much influence.
“Most Democrats have a fundamental problem with this much money,” Cabrera said. “So, I think they have a hard time figuring out what to do with it. Do they just stand on principal and try to reform the system and don’t participate in it? Or do you participate in it while you’re still trying to reform the system, which makes you kind of hypocritical—which I think is the hard time the Dems are having with it.”