Campaign Funding in Silicon Valley: Spotlight on Palo Alto

Bergen Smith, Hamsini Sridharan, Laura Curlin | March 31, 2020

This report is the third in a series of analyses from MapLight exploring the influence of money on politics in cities in Silicon Valley. See also our work in San Jose, Daly City, and Mountain View.


One of the most expensive Bay Area cities in which to live, Palo Alto, California is also an increasingly expensive city in which to run for office: from 2014 to 2018, the average amount raised by a winning city council candidate rose 57 percent, from $40,000 to $63,000. For comparison, this $63,000 was more than half of what winning city council candidates in nearby San Jose raised on average in 2018 ($110,000) — even though San Jose’s population is 15 times larger than Palo Alto’s. Candidates for Palo Alto city council received more than $1 million in total across the 2014, 2016, and 2018 elections. 

Campaign funding influences the political process at every level: who runs for office, who wins, to whom lawmakers listen, and what policies get passed. In Palo Alto, our analysis shows that wealthy donors and special interests play a disproportionate role in elections.

Key Findings:

  • Contribution totals have risen over time. Over the last three elections, the average amount raised by winning city council candidates grew from $40,000 in 2014 to $63,000 in 2018.
  • A small group of large individual donors is responsible for the majority of fundraising. In 2016 and 2018, about 150 donors, who each gave $500 or more, provided more than 60 percent of all funding to city council candidates.
  • Large donors dominated political fundraising. The top 25 contributors over the three election cycles contributed $382,000 — one-third of all the money raised by the entire field of candidates.
  • Small donors comprised a tiny portion of candidate funding. Altogether, donors giving less than $100 contributed $30,000, which comprised just 3 percent of all funding over the three elections.
  • The lack of contribution limits enables individual donors to give large amounts of money. For example, one household contributed $16,200 to a single candidate, 15 percent of all the money raised by that candidate.
  • Candidates who favored slower commercial development were heavily funded by a handful of locals. Along with the group Palo Altans for Sensible Zoning, just nine donors provided 55 percent of the money to 10 “residentialist” candidacies over three elections.
  • Pro-growth candidates, who favored more commercial development, received a significant portion of their money from outside Palo Alto. Only 59 percent of individual donor contributions to pro-growth candidates’ came from Palo Alto residents, compared to residentialist candidates, who received 95 percent of their individual donor contributions from city residents.
  • In 2016, significant amounts of candidate funding came in late in the game. Fourteen percent of all contributions ($71,600) were received in the two weeks preceding the election, and another 12 percent ($61,600) were received after the election. These pre- and post-election “late” contributions — many coming from the real estate industry — heavily favored pro-growth candidates. 

Election Summary

For more than 40 years, Palo Alto had nine citywide council seats. In 2018, membership was reduced to seven citywide seats due to the 2014 passage of Measure D. City council members are elected to four-year terms and can serve for a maximum of two consecutive terms.

Twelve candidates sought election in 2014. Five seats were up for election, including two open seats. Three incumbents (Karen Holman, Greg Scharff, and Nancy Shepherd) ran for reelection. Five of the nine challengers were “viable,” which we define as receiving at least $10,000 in contributions: Tom DuBois, Eric Filseth, Cory Wolbach, Lydia Kou, and A.C. Johnston. Four additional candidates (Mark Weiss, John Fredrich, Sealam Reddy, and Wayne Douglass) rounded out the field. Holman and Scharff were both reelected, with DuBois, Filseth, and Wolbach securing the other three council seats.

In 2016, there were four seats up for election and only one incumbent, Liz Kniss, running for reelection. Along with Kniss, five viable challengers (Greg Tanaka, Adrian Fine, Lydia Kou, Arthur Keller, and Don McDougall) and five other candidates (Greer Stone, Stewart Carl, Danielle Martell, John Fredrich, and Leonard Ely) made up the field. Kou, who had nearly been elected in 2014, secured a seat this time alongside Kniss, Tanaka, and Fine.

With Measure D decreasing the number of seats up for election to three in 2018, three incumbents (Tom DuBois, Eric Filseth, and Cory Wolbach) ran for reelection against two challengers (Alison Cormack and Pat Boone). Incumbents DuBois and Filseth were reelected, alongside first-time candidate Cormack.

The Residentialist and Pro-Growth Factions

Palo Alto has a history of political conflict over commercial growth and government development, dating back to the mid-20th century. This issue became particularly divisive in the 1960s, as “residentialist” councilmembers, who favored slower growth, faced off against “pro-growth” council members, who favored commercial and government projects. In recent years, the burgeoning tech industry and strained housing market have reinvigorated the divide between residentialist and pro-growth factions. The last three election cycles have reflected this, with residentialist candidates, who oppose zoning exceptions and favor a slower rate of change, squaring off against pro-growth candidates, who generally support further commercial development.

There is no official residentialist slate, but we categorized candidates as residentialists based on candidates' statements and whether they received financial support from the group Palo Altans for Sensible Zoning (PASZ). The residentialist candidates in 2014 were Eric Filseth, Karen Holman, Tom DuBois, and Lydia Kou, with the last three receiving contributions from PASZ. In 2016, PASZ heavily funded two residentialist candidates, Lydia Kou and Arthur Keller. Two less viable candidates, Stewart Carl and Greer Stone, also leaned towards residentialist policies. In 2018, two residentialists (DuBois and Filseth) were up for reelection, both receiving financial support from PASZ.

As with the residentialists, there is no unified slate of pro-growth candidates. We identified pro-growth candidates based on their statements and whether they received contributions from the California Realtors Association. In 2014, four pro-growth candidates ran for office with financial support from the California Realtors Association: Greg Scharff, Cory Wolbach, Nancy Shepherd, and A.C. Johnston. During the 2016 election, another four pro-growth candidates (Liz Kniss, Greg Tanaka, Adrian Fine, and Don McDougall) ran for office. Three of the four (McDougall excepted) received contributions from the California Realtors Association. In 2018, there was a single pro-growth candidate, Wolbach, who ran for reelection after taking office in 2014. He again benefited from contributions from the California Realtors Association.

In all three election cycles, some candidates ran for office who did not fall squarely into either of the two factions. Most of these candidates (Mark Weiss, John Fredrich, Seelam Reddy, Wayne Douglass, Danielle Martell, Leonard Ely III, and Pat Boone) raised less than $4,000 for their campaigns and ultimately received fewer than 5,000 votes. In contrast, Alison Cormack ran a successful campaign explicitly unaligned with either faction, though she did receive contributions from pro-growth councilmembers Greg Scharff and Liz Kniss. Unlike other unaffiliated candidates, Cormack garnered considerable financial support and was elected in 2018, receiving the most votes of any candidate. 

Total Contributions

Candidates for Palo Alto city council received $1.1 million in total across the 2014, 2016, and 2018 elections. In that time, the average amount raised by winning city council candidates grew from $40,000 in 2014 to $63,000 in 2018.

Table 1: 2014 Palo Alto City Council Election

As the number of city council seats decreased, the average amount raised by viable candidates rose. The entire field of 12 candidates in 2014 raised a total of $326,000. The average amount brought in by viable candidates was $41,000, with pro-growth candidates receiving $52,000 on average and residentialists receiving just $30,000 on average. All averages in 2014 were inflated by Greg Scharff, who alone raised $98,000, a sum more than $38,000 larger than any of his opponents.

Table 2: 2016 Palo Alto City Council Election

In 2016, 11 candidates raised a total of $510,000. Viable candidates took in $83,000 on average, far more than comparable candidates raised in 2014. This time, viable residentialist candidates outraised the pro-growth candidates, bringing in an average of $100,000, while pro-growth candidates secured an average of $74,000.

Table 3: 2018 Palo Alto City Council Election

Fundraising totals in 2018 dropped slightly from 2016, but the average amounts raised still easily surpassed those of 2014. Altogether, the five candidates running received $279,000. Among the four viable candidates, the average fundraising haul was $69,000. The two residentialists brought in an average of $60,000, while pro-growth Cory Wolbach raised $89,000 and unaligned Alison Cormack raised $68,000 for her campaign.

Raising more money than their opponents did not necessarily ensure a candidate’s victory. The biggest fundraiser in 2014 was Greg Scharff, who outraised all his opponents by more than $35,000 and was successfully reelected. However, neither A.C. Johnston nor Lydia Kou, who had the second and third highest fundraising totals, were elected that year. In 2016, Arthur Keller outraised all other candidates, but wasn’t able to translate that into enough votes — but the next highest fundraisers were all elected. This same story played out in 2018, when Cory Wolbach raised the most, but was not reelected. Fundraising was influential, but did not guarantee victory in Palo Alto elections. 

Late Contributions

Most money that candidates raised was received before the election, but about $65,000 was received in “post-election contributions,” or donations received on or after election day, and another $108,000 was received in “pre-election contributions,” or donations received during the final two weeks before each of the three elections. Pre-election contributions are noteworthy because, unless a donor contributes $1,000 or more, candidates do not have to disclose the sources of this money until after the election. 

Table 4: Late Contributions to City Council Candidates

In both 2014 and 2018, less than 1 percent of all contributions were received after the election, ($1,300 and $1,600 respectively). The pre-election contribution totals were more substantial, $15,800 in 2014 and $20,200 in 2018, or about 6 percent of all funding in each election. In contrast, during the 2016 election, pre-election contributions totaled $71,600 (14 percent of all contributions) and post-election contributions came to a sum of $61,600 (12 percent).

In 2016, three candidates received the vast majority of the pre-election contributions: Don McDougall ($26,400), Adrian Fine ($20,400), and Greg Tanaka ($19,400). More than 45 percent of McDougall’s funds came from pre-election contributions, and Tanaka received more than half of all his funding after October 22nd, including an additional $28,400 after the election. While Liz Kniss did not receive a sizable sum in the run-up to the election, she did report receiving $19,300 after the election, a quarter of her total funding. Kniss’ post-election contributions are of particular note because some of the donors say they actually contributed well before the election. This discrepancy has prompted an ongoing investigation by the Fair Political Practices Commission.

Over all three elections, pro-growth candidates significantly outraised residentialists in both pre- and post-election contributions. Of the $108,000 contributed to all candidates during the two weeks leading up to the November elections, pro-growth candidates received 85 percent. The difference in post-election contributions is even more stark, with pro-growth candidates receiving 99.8 percent of the $64,500 given on or after election day. In 2016, post-election contributions were particularly concentrated among donors within the real estate industry: 41 out of 67 contributions, a total of $38,000, came from real estate donors.

Sources of Funding

There are four private funding sources that candidates can pursue when raising money for their campaigns: direct corporate contributions, political committees, individual donors, and self-funding. Beyond the funding that goes directly to candidates, organizations can make independent expenditures to support or oppose candidates, so long as they are not directly coordinated with candidates’ campaigns.

Figure 1: Sources of Candidate Funding

Corporate Contributions

Businesses made up a small share of funding for most candidates in Palo Alto. Corporate giving comprised just 1 percent of total funding in 2014, and 2 percent in 2018. However, in 2016, businesses gave $45,000 — 9 percent of all the contributions that election cycle. Corporate support went primarily to Greg Tanaka ($19,000) and Don McDougall ($17,000); these donations made up 22 percent and 30 percent respectively of their fundraising totals. The main corporate contributors were real estate and property management firms, including Vittoria Management, R&M Properties, Thoits Bros., and the Palo Alto Improvement Company. Largely due to Tanaka and McDougall, pro-growth candidates received a total of $51,000 from corporations over all three elections, compared to the $3,000 residentialists received from corporations during the same period.

Political Committee Contributions

Three types of political committees contributed to city council candidates: unions, trade associations, and other political committees. Unions contributed to just one campaign over the three elections, Cory Wolbach’s 2018 reelection bid. While Wolbach did not receive any union money during his 2014 election, he received more than $8,600 from unions in 2018. Union contributions, including $4,400 from the Palo Alto Professional Fire Fighters, comprised 10 percent of his 2018 funding.

Two trade associations contributed to candidates’ campaigns: the California Apartment Association and the California Realtors Association. These two groups contributed $10,000 over the three elections, comprising about 1 percent of all contributions. The California Realtors Association was responsible for 98 percent of all trade association giving, with both groups giving exclusively to pro-growth candidates.

Other committees and organizations contributed nominal amounts, except for Palo Altans for Sensible Zoning (PASZ) and Liz Kniss’ campaign committee. PASZ contributed $27,400 to residentialist candidates over the three elections, while Liz Kniss’ campaign committee transferred $16,000 from her 2012 campaign to her 2016 reelection campaign. The remaining $5,000 from other groups came from other candidate committees, including the committees of former California state assemblymember Rich Gordon, U.S. Representative Anna Eshoo, and former Palo Alto city council member and current state assemblymember Marc Berman, as well as nonprofits such as the California League of Conservation Voters. 

Palo Altans for Sensible Zoning, the largest committee donor and one of the largest donors overall, was created in opposition to Measure D in 2013, which involved a plan to rezone residential land for the construction of affordable senior citizen housing. PASZ was out-fundraised by Palo Altans for Affordable Senior Housing, the group supporting the measure, but the measure was voted down at the ballot box. Since 2014, PASZ has brought in more than $77,000, donating exclusively to residentialist candidates. In 2014, PASZ gave just $60 each to Holman, DuBois, and Kou. PASZ ramped up its contributions in 2016, giving $10,000 apiece to the two leading residentialist candidates, Kou and Keller. The group rolled back its spending in 2018, contributing $3,000 to DuBois and $4,200 to Filseth.

Personal Contributions and Loans

Of the three elections, 2014 saw the largest amount of contributions and loans from candidates to their own campaigns: $86,900, or 27 percent of all campaign funding. Greg Scharff loaned his campaign $60,000 of his own money, repaying $58,000 years later. This amount comprised 62 percent of Scharff’s total funding. A.C. Johnston, who ran unsuccessfully in 2014, donated $5,000 and loaned $20,000 to his campaign. He terminated his campaign committee in 2015 without reporting that he paid off the loan. This $25,000 comprised 43 percent of Johnston’s fundraising total.

There were fewer personal contributions in the 2016 election, just $12,700 in total, comprising 2.5 percent of all fundraising. The first runner-up, Arthur Keller, donated $8,600 to his own campaign, while Leonard Ely III supplied the $3,000 behind his fully self-funded campaign. 

Nearly the same amount — $12,600 — came from candidates themselves in 2018. All five candidates contributed some amount toward their own campaigns; the two largest spenders were Eric Filseth ($8,500) and Cory Wolbach ($2,700).

Individual Donors

The overwhelming majority of contributions came from individual donors. During the 2014 election, individuals gave $231,000 to candidates. The following elections brought in even more from individual donors: $407,000 in 2016 and $243,000 in 2018. The proportion of money coming from individuals also rose in each successive election. In 2014, 71 percent of fundraising came from individual donors, which rose to 80 percent in 2016 and again to 87 percent in 2018.

In Palo Alto, candidates are not required to itemize information about donors who contribute less than $100, but they do report the aggregate amount of small donations they receive. Donors giving under $100 made up less than 5 percent of all contributions in each election cycle. 

Since contributions at or above the $100 threshold are itemized by candidates, we can delve deeper into the sources of that money. While nearly all candidates received the majority of their contributions from individual donors, they were split on where those donors came from. Residentialist candidates received much more hometown support; 95 percent of their money from individual donors came from city residents. In contrast, just 59 percent of individual donor contributions to pro-growth candidates came from Palo Alto residents. Cormack split the difference in 2018, with 81 percent of her money from individual donors coming from residents.

Beyond the summary figures, a couple of candidates stand out for their local support — or lack thereof. In 2014, Greg Scharff received just 13 percent of his funding ($13,000) from Palo Alto residents (in addition to his significant self-funding). He also received $11,000 from out of state and $12,000 from non-local Californians. A.C. Johnston also received a small share of his money from within Palo Alto — just 28 percent of his donations ($17,000) came from residents. He also contributed a sizable amount ($25,000) to his own campaign and received $6,500 from out of state and $10,000 from elsewhere in California. On the opposite side, three residentialist candidates, Eric Filseth and Karen Holman in 2014, and Tom DuBois in 2018, received at least 90 percent of their campaign funding directly from Palo Alto residents. 

Independent Expenditures

The majority of money spent came from candidates’ official campaigns. While candidates raised $1.1 million, outside organizations only spent $40,000 to independently support or oppose candidate campaigns. Palo Altans for Good Government spent $3,400 on newspaper ads supporting the pro-growth ticket in 2014 (A.C. Johnston, Greg Scharff, Nancy Shepherd, and Cory Wolbach). While there were no independent expenditures in 2016, during the 2018 election Alison Cormack saw considerable support from outside groups. The California Apartment Association spent $13,280 on a mailer supporting her candidacy, and a political action committee called “Innovation for Everyone” spent $23,130 supporting her as well. Innovation for Everyone was funded by Steven Berglund (CEO of the Sunnyvale-based SaaS firm Trimble), construction firm founder Michael Blach, and the South Bay Development Company. While Cormack raised more than $68,400 for her candidacy, this $36,400 of outside spending provided a significant boost towards her successful run for office.

Zip Code Analysis

Looking at the breakdown of contributions received by zip code in Palo Alto allows for comparisons to U.S. Census demographic data, illustrating trends about the origins of candidate funding. In each election, the zip code that contributed the most money and had the highest per capita contribution was 94301, which also has the highest household median income in Palo Alto. The area with the lowest per capita contribution in all three elections was 94303. The 94303 zip code also ranked lowest on household median income in the city and contained the lowest proportion of white residents. 

Figure 2: Per Capita Contributions In Palo Alto

In Palo Alto, contributions were highly concentrated in the 94301 zip code. Across Palo Alto zip codes, a total of $663,000 was given to city council campaigns — approximately $2 per person per election. The contribution per capita in the 94301 zip code was $7.13, over three times more than the city as a whole. For comparison, during the 2016 presidential election, candidates raised a combined $1.5 billion, or about $4.50 per U.S. resident. This means that residents of the 94301 zip code contributed 1.5 times more per person to their local races than the average American gave to presidential candidates. 

Figure 3: Contributions by Zip Code in 2014

In the 2014 election, residentialist candidates received 50 percent more money from the four Palo Altan zip codes than the pro-growth candidates did. Nearly one out of every four dollars contributed overall came from residents of the 94301 zip code. The $80,000 from this zip code was split relatively evenly between residentialist candidates ($42,000) and pro-growth candidates ($38,000). Much of the residentialists’ fundraising advantage came from the 94306 zip code, where they outraised their pro-growth competitors four to one.

Figure 4: Contributions by Zip Code in 2016

The funding gap between the factions narrowed in 2016, with residentialists taking in $175,000 from Palo Altan zip codes — 35 percent more than pro-growth candidates. Again, the 94301 zip code was responsible for the majority of funding, with 38 percent of all contributions coming from these residents. This time, residentialists were favored by the residents of 94301, with $117,000 going to their candidates and $79,000 to pro-growth candidates. 

Figure 5: Contributions by Zip Code in 2018

The same distribution generally continued into 2018, with contributions from the 94301 zip code comprising 33 percent of all contributions. One difference was that 94303 flipped from being one of the lowest contributing zip codes in previous elections to the second highest contributing zip code. This shift was largely due to Alison Cormack, who received $29,000 from these residents — 43 percent of her total funding. Residents of the 94303 zip code gave more to Cormack’s campaign than they did to all candidates combined in either the 2014 or 2016 election. 

Donor Size

Since Palo Alto does not have any limits on campaign contributions, donors can write checks of any size to candidates. As a result, city elections are influenced heavily by large donors. Large donors, those giving $500 or more, contributed $142,000 to candidates in 2014 — 44 percent of all the money raised. The proportion of money coming from large donors only increased in the subsequent elections. In 2016, the total amount from large donors rose to $339,000 and comprised 67 percent of funding. Contributions from large donors fell slightly in 2018 to 62 percent of all donations ($174,000). Throughout all three elections, residentialists were especially reliant on large donor contributions, which made up 65 percent of the money they raised. Pro-growth candidates received a smaller proportion (44 percent) of their money from these donors. Alison Cormack received a slightly higher proportion of large dollar donors than the average residentialist, taking in 66 percent of her money from these donors. 

Figure 6: Average Contributions to City Council Candidates by Donor Size

Large donations came from a group of fewer than 200 donors. In 2014, approximately 143 large donors gave an average of $990 apiece. In 2016, contributions from large donors more than doubled and the average contribution from these donors skyrocketed to $2,150, with only 15 more large donors than in 2014. During the 2018 election, contributions from large donors fell from their 2016 high, but the average contribution from these donors was still $1,190.

During the 2016 fundraising surge, many candidates relied more heavily on high-dollar contributions than in other elections. That year, Lydia Kou received 83 percent of her funding from large donors, with Arthur Keller following close behind at 73 percent. The pro-growth campaign that relied most heavily on large donors was Adrian Fine’s 2016 campaign, which received 65 percent of its money from these individuals. Pro-growth candidates relied more heavily on corporate contributions, trade associations, and personal contributions than did their residentialist counterparts. 

Within the group of large donors, there is a subset of mega-donors who contributed $5,000 or more to a single candidate. These donors contributed $283,000 across the three elections, providing one out of every four dollars received by candidates. Residentialists were far more likely to receive money from these donors, taking in a total of $225,000 (50 percent of their total fundraising) from mega-donors. The bulk of this went to Lydia Kou and Arthur Keller, who received more than $77,000 apiece in 2016. Pro-growth candidates — in particular, Greg Tanaka — also benefited. Tanaka received $30,000 from mega-donors, which comprised 35 percent of his 2016 funding.

Table 5: Contributions of $5,000 or More

Small donors, those contributing less than $100, made up a small portion of donations. These donors contributed $30,000 over the three election cycles — less than 5 percent of fundraising in each year. Residentialists and pro-growth candidates received more or less the same proportion of their money from small donors. The two viable candidates who received the most support from small donors were Cory Wolbach (11 percent) and Karen Holman (10 percent), both in 2014. In his 2018 reelection bid, Wolbach brought in $4,000 from small donors — just 5 percent of his total funding that year, but more in absolute terms than any other candidate across the three elections. The viable candidates who received the least funding from small donors were Greg Tanaka, Lydia Kou, and Don McDougall, who each secured less than $1,000 from small donors — just 1 percent of the money each received. 

Top Contributors

We identified the largest contributors by standardizing the largest individual donors and aggregating contributions made by organizations and their employees. Altogether the top 25 contributors donated $382,000, more than one in three dollars donated to city council candidates. 

Table 6: Top 25 Contributors in Palo Alto City Council Elections

The top contributor across all three election cycles was a married couple, Thomas and Gabrielle Layton, who donated $48,800, comprising 4 percent of all candidate funding. Thomas Layton is the executive chairman of UpWork. (Note: Layton also co-founded MapLight in 2005 and remains on the advisory board.) Gabrielle Layton is the co-founder and president of the Embarcadero Institute. The Laytons were also major donors to Palo Altans for Sensible Zoning, giving $10,000 to the organization over the same period. They overwhelmingly supported residentialist candidates in all three election cycles, giving the most to Arthur Keller’s unsuccessful 2016 bid ($16,200, 15 percent of his total contributions) and Lydia Kou’s successful run in 2016 ($14,300).

The next four top contributors were also local households who gave to both residentialist candidates and PASZ. These donors included Simone Coxe, who chairs the journalism nonprofit CalMatters, and her husband Tench Coxe, partner at venture capitalist firm Sutter Hill Ventures. Together, the Coxes contributed $41,500 to residentialist candidates and $10,900 to PASZ, as well as $500 to pro-growth candidate Greg Scharff. Fellow Sutter Hill Ventures partner Len Baker and his wife, retired journalist Mary Anne Baker, gave $39,300 to residentialist candidates, $1,000 to Scharff, and $13,500 to PASZ. The households of Paula Rantz and her husband Michael (a retired Goldman Sachs partner) and Helyn MacLean and Asher Waldfogel, both contributed more than $31,000 to residentialist candidates and $5,000 apiece to PASZ. The next largest donor was Palo Altans for Sensible Zoning itself; the organization donated a total of $27,000 to city council candidates and received 58 percent of its funding from the previously listed contributors. 

Further down the list of top contributors, other individuals (Joe Hirsch, Laszlo Tokes, Judy Koch, and Neilson Buchanan) contributed primarily to residentialist candidates. Altogether, these nine contributors and PASZ gave $245,500 to the 10 residentialist candidacies in the three elections — 55 percent of all the money received by those candidates.

Table 7: Distribution of Fundraising from Top 25 Contributors

Residentialist candidates were not the only recipients of money from the top contributors; thirteen of the top 25 contributors gave primarily to pro-growth candidates. These donors gave $105,000 to the nine pro-growth campaigns — 18 percent of all the money taken in by these candidates. Top pro-growth donors were largely real estate firms and trade groups, including Keenan Land Company, R&M Properties, the California Realtors Association, Vittoria Management, and Premier Properties. Nearly a third of that money went to a single candidate, Greg Tanaka, who was elected to office in 2016. He received $30,300 from these top pro-growth donors, 35 percent of his entire fundraising total. Other pro-growth candidates received sizable proportions of their money from these top donors as well, including Don McDougall (36 percent), Adrian Fine (29 percent), A.C. Johnston (14 percent), and Liz Kniss (12 percent). 

Alison Cormack received less support from the top contributors than many of her opponents, though she did receive substantial support ($7,900) from employees of her former employer, Google. Google employees also contributed $9,600 to pro-growth candidates, with a small amount ($500) going to residentialist candidates. Overall, Cormack secured $10,900 from the top contributors — 16 percent of her contributions. 


Running for local office can be an expensive endeavor, especially in Palo Alto. In 2018, the average amount raised by an elected Palo Alto candidate ($63,000) was more than half the amount raised by an elected San Jose city council candidate ($110,000), even though San Jose boasts a population 15 times larger than that of Palo Alto. The battle over commercial development in the city continues apace; residentialist and pro-growth factions have distinct bases of support willing to contribute thousands of dollars to these local campaigns. Our analysis shows that most Palo Alto candidates receive significant financial support either from wealthy local residents or from corporations, trade associations, and non-resident donors. Just 25 contributors were responsible for one in three dollars raised by candidates in the 2014, 2016, and 2018 elections. While money was not determinative of all election outcomes or political actions, it certainly indicates salient patterns of political influence in the city.


Campaign records were gathered on September 16, 2019 from the most recently amended filings available via Palo Alto’s public information portal. Candidates’ total contributions include monetary and non-monetary contributions received between January 1st of the year before the November election through December 31st of the election year, as well as any outstanding loans at the end of the calendar year following an election.

Unique contributors were estimated by grouping contributions by first name, last name, and zip code. All discussions of resident contributors are based on whether a donor had a Palo Alto address. Individuals giving more than $5,000 were considered top contributors in their own right, with couples grouped together. Individuals giving less than $5,000 were aggregated by their employer.

Discussions of zip code demographics utilized the 2014, 2016, and 2018 American Community Survey estimates of the corresponding zip code tabulation areas. The zip codes included in the analysis of Palo Altan zip codes are 94301, 94303, 94304, and 94306. The Stanford University zip code, 94305, has been excluded. Maps which include contributions by zip codes are based on the outlines of 2010 U.S. census zip code tabulation areas.


This report was made possible with support from the Silicon Valley Community Foundation.