Just days after ballots arrived in mailboxes, two top candidates for state office are engulfed in a public debate over campaign finances.
San Mateo Mayor Rick Bonilla this week accused Diane Papan, San Mateo deputy mayor and State Assembly District 21 candidate, of accepting campaign donations from major oil and gas corporations, challenging her assertion to voters that she stood on a platform of environmental sustainability.
In a press release published Tuesday, Bonilla, together with six Bay Area climate activists, claimed that Papan received contributions from major corporations such as Chevron and Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) via political action committees and special interest groups, including Californians for Jobs and a Strong Economy and the California Association of Realtors.
“Any candidate who claims to support homeless housing and sustainability has no business accepting contributions or efforts from these special interests. What the people need is a fair election,” Bonilla said in a statement.
Papan, who has made climate action one of her campaign priorities, denied the allegations in a press release issued in response to Bonilla. She addressed Bonilla’s claims head-on in a statement saying she had “not taken any direct contributions from the oil and gas industry donors.”
She then pointed her finger directly at Redwood City Mayor Giselle Hale, calling the press release a “desperate smear tactic on Hale’s part.” Hale was not named in Bonilla’s press release and, in an interview with the Pulse, denied having been involved in its publication.
In a campaign newsletter, Hale said special interest groups funded by oil and gas companies were spending “hundreds of thousands of dollars supporting one of my opponents and attacking me.” Hale later confirmed that she was referring to Papan in the newsletter.
The accusations have sparked an online war, with each side chastising the other for smear tactics, mudslinging and affiliations with “dark money.”
Campaign finance reports reveal that Californians for Jobs and a Strong Economy, whose largest funders include Chevron, donated to Future PAC and other special interest groups, which have directly contributed to Papan’s campaign. Reports further show that independent expenditure committees that support Papan—and some that oppose Hale—spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on political advertisements and other outreach for Papan’s campaign. According to the California Fair Political Practices Commission, independent expenditures are payments for communications, such as mailers or advertisements, that advocate for an election or a candidate. They are “not made to—or at the behest of—the affected candidate or committee.”
One committee put nearly $250,000 towards Papan’s campaign, including on digital advertisements and mailers as well as research and consulting, according to an independent expenditure report. The same committee spent over $135,000 on digital and print ads opposing Hale.
One such mailer, which was sent out to San Mateo County residents and largely funded by groups that have contributed directly to Papan’s campaign, appeared to leverage Hale’s eight year tenure as a Facebook employee as a warning to voters. The mailer blasted Hale for accepting big tech money, specially from current and former Facebook executives. She has received a total of $70,250 from employees of Facebook and Meta.
Describing the mailers as a “gross exaggeration and intentionally meant to spread misinformation,” Hale told the Pulse she hadn’t taken any money from corporate tax funds.
“Accepting funding from individuals is perfectly legal and how people should be fundraising,” she said. “So I’m really proud to have so many people supporting my campaign.”
When asked to comment, Papan referred the Pulse to the press release issued on Tuesday. In her statement, Papan said it was “a well-established fact” that outside organizations, such as political action committees (PACs), “conduct their own communications with voters, which neither Papan or Hale has control over.”
But Hale had a different take.
“This money comes with strings,” Hale told the Pulse. “And to have a Big Oil at the table is not only scary, but downright ugly, and not where we need to be right now.
“We need to be working on solutions to get out of wildfires and droughts and sea level rise—and not reinforcing the interests that got us into this situation.”
In a press release, Papan touted her work on climate action in collaboration with the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors, including a special district—One Shoreline—that focuses on climate change solutions.
“I'm running because I think I can make a difference,” she told the Pulse in a previous interview. She also talked about the importance of climate change resiliency—specifically sea level rise and wildfire preparedness—and highlighted her experience serving on the Flood and Sea Level Rise Resiliency board.
During a recent candidate forum, Papan championed their commitment to addressing environmental issues. Papan discussed climate adaptation and mitigation efforts and emphasized the importance of seeking both engineered and natural solutions, such as carbon extraction.
“If we stop polluting, we still need to extract carbon,” Papan said, adding that she would “focus on perfecting that technology and having it come from California.”
The candidates for the State Assembly, D-21 race include Papan and Hale, as well as James Coleman, Mark Gilham, Maurice Goodman, Alison Madden and Tania Solé.
Assembly District 21, as drawn by the California Citizen Redistricting Commission, includes Eastern San Mateo County and the cities of Belmont, Brisbane, Burlingame, East Palo Alto, Foster City, Millbrae, Redwood City, San Bruno, San Carlos, San Mateo and portions of South San Francisco. It is currently represented by Assembly members Kevin Mullin and Marc Berman.
The Statewide Direct Primary Election will take place on Tuesday, June 7. Vote by Mail ballots for the election will be mailed out to all registered voters starting the week of May 9, according to the San Mateo County Registrar of Voters. For more information on registering to vote and different methods of submitting your ballot, visit smcvote.org. Additional information about upcoming candidate forums can be found here.
Editor's Note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the monetary contributions Hale received from employees of Facebook/Meta. Hale has received a combined total of $70,250 from Facebook and Meta employees. To request a correction, contact email@example.com.