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Campaign ads target former assemblywoman as thousands slosh around Peninsula senate race

With voters set to pick a new state senator to represent the Peninsula in the March 3 primary, the five candidates running for Jerry Hill’s open seat have raised more than $1.7 million so far as special interest groups like pharmaceutical companies, real estate owners and tech firms spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on mailers and literature attacking one of the top candidates.

So far, the groups have spent about $307,000 on ads and flyers attacking former State Assemblywoman Sally Lieber, whose campaign has seen a barrage of negative literature aimed at swaying voters against her, describing her as “Sacramento Sally Lieber” and telling residents they deserve better.

Lieber is among the top Democratic candidates vying for the Senate District 13 seat, competing against Redwood City Vice Mayor Shelly Masur; Burlingame Councilman Michael Brownrigg; Entrepreneur and party favorite Josh Becker; and Millbrae Councilwoman Annie Oliva.

All the Democratic candidates except Lieber have received $15,176 from Californians Allied for Patient Protection, which has paid $116,000 for mailers accusing Lieber as being in the pocket of Big Oil, of campaigning on refusing a pay raise “then taking one anyway,” and of supporting a bill that benefited a company in which her family held stock.

But Lieber said the mailers are misleading and inaccurate, and largely have come from organizations based in K Street in Sacramento, where most state lobbying groups have their headquarters.

“It’s clear to me that the special interests don’t want me back in office and I’m going to persist and keep knocking on doors and talking directly to the voters,” said Lieber, who has the leanest campaign so far among her Democratic oppenents, raising $246,895. “I think most voters can’t understand why we have this interference from big insurance, big pharma, Chevron and others in our districts and our neighborhoods. That doesn’t make any sense to people and I’m siding with the people.”

Lieber said most of her supporters will see right through claims that she is using money from oil companies to fund her campaign and supports pharmaceutical manufacturers — both industries which she has battled against over the years.

She said one particular mailer, which claims that Lieber’s family financially benefited from the passing of a bill she wrote requiring Human Papillomavirus vaccines for pre-adolescent girls, doesn’t tell the full story. Lieber said she quickly took her name off the bill when she found out her husband’s grandfather’s trust owned stock in Merck Pharmaceuticals, which manufactured the HPV vaccine Gardasil.

She also said that claims that she received money from oil companies are false, noting that the only contribution she ever received from them was in 2008, when Chevron donated $1,000 despite her “zero percent voting record with oil companies.” She returned the check because it “just didn’t sit right with me.”

Other groups have also taken out ads against Lieber, including the Silicon Valley Jobs PAC — closely associated with the California Chamber of Commerce, the Lyft-funded Californians for Independent Work and pharmaceutical companies — which has spent about $45,000 on digital attack ads.

Lieber also has been the target of Keeping Californians Working and the Cooperative of American Physicians which have spent spent $111,000 on consulting, research and mailers against her.

Though not all campaign financing reports are available online as of publication — Brownrigg, Republican Alex Glew of Los Altos, and Libertarian John Webster of Mountain View had no records yet on Cal-Access for this race — contributions to other top Democrats in the field have been streaming in as spending has skyrocketed in the days leading up to the election.

Independent PACs have been flooding the campaign with hundreds of thousands of dollars, including to Oliva’s campaign, which has raised $423,373, with special interests groups spending about $576,000 on her behalf. Most of that spending comes from the California Real Estate Independent Expenditure Committee, a PAC associated with the California Association of Realtors. .

The California Fair Political Practices Committee filed a complaint against Oliva after learning that Oliva sat on the board of directors of the San Mateo County Association of Realtors, which has endorsed her and is associated with the California Association of Realtors. The complaint alleged coordination between her campaign and the organization, but was dismissed by the FPPC, according to a letter sent to Oliva’s campaign on Feb. 18.

Olivas’ campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

Becker, a party favorite in the race who has received endorsements from Gov. Gavin Newsom, outgoing state senator Jerry Hill, former Presidential candidate Senator Kamala Harris and other top state politicos has raised the most so far, receiving $636,876 from individual donors since August.

Nearly all the money being spent on Becker’s behalf through the Committee for Positive Social Change and other groups comes from Silicon Valley billionaire Reid Hoffman, a co-founder and executive chairman of LinkedIn. Hoffman gave the committee $500,000.

Hoffman also is a partner in Greylock Partners, a venture capital firm that has invested in tech companies like Airbnb, GoFundMe, Nextdoor, Workday, Dropbox, Facebook and Tumblr.

Becker’s campaign said in a statement that Becker knows Hoffman through his work with non-profit Full Circle and through his work advocating for clean energy. The campaign also said that Becker has had no interaction with the Committee for Positive Social Change and did not know about the PAC until he saw the first finance report filings.

“It should be noted that Josh has by far the most individual contributions in the race at over 1,400 and by the most individual contributors at 1,000,” said Becker campaign spokesman Jesse Brooks. “Josh is fully supportive of public campaign financing and has actually worked to support public funding of campaigns through his work with the California Clean Money Campaign. And if public financing meant it would also eliminate these independent committees from operating, that’s a good outcome.”

Though Brownrigg’s recent campaign disclosures are not yet available, independent spending to his campaign has primarily come from his mother. Linda Brownrigg, 85, of Los Altos Hills, started her own independent expenditure committee to assist her son and funded it with about $460,000.

“Four of the five Democratic candidate campaigns are supported roughly equally by outside parties,” Brownrigg said in an email to the Mercury News. “The difference between the committees, as I have said before, is that the most my mother might ask of me in the future is that I call her more often. What the other interest groups might ask of their candidates, one can only speculate.”

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