By Jeff Burdick, Sacto Politico
The four elected seats on the California Board of Equalization (BOE) are the least powerful and least sexy of California’s constitutional offices. This is part product of former Gov. Jerry Brown gutting the BOE’s responsibilities in 2017 after a series of scandals. This left the former 5,000-person agency with just 200 employees and some statewide authority over property taxes, the alcoholic beverage tax, and taxes on insurers.
Yet, the Board still oversees a $32 million budget, and each regional board member makes $163,900 and can hire six staff. This makes the positions attractive to politicians looking for a well-paid post before running for something else. This is also what makes David Dodson a rarity. The Democrat running for the southern California District 4 seat is a 30-year BOE veteran who manages the agency’s Southern California office. The Orange County resident was by far the most qualified and knowledgeable of any of the seven primary candidates. But running on a platform of competent government, spending just $3,246 and receiving little media coverage, Dodson seemed a long shot to make November’s top-two runoff.
But finish second Dodson did. With 99% of the vote counted, the incumbent from his own party (83-year-old Mike Schaefer) received 36%. The five Republican candidates split 49% of the vote, with none getting more than Dodson’s 15%. This sets up a fascinating Schaefer-Dodson matchup this fall with Dodson hoping Schaefer’s long list of legal convictions and recent ethical violations get more coverage than in the primary.
QUESTION: Were you surprised you made top two in the primary?
DAVID DODSON: I am not entirely surprised. I hoped to win, but one thing that certainly helped was having five Republicans divide up their vote.
But I do think what also helped is Mike Schaefer’s long history of bad behavior. I think some voters paid attention to that. When you look at the other incumbent BOE members, they all got way more than 50%, and Schaefer was way down at [36%]. He’s victimized just about everyone he has met throughout his career, and he seems to enjoy it. [Laughs.] I think especially his spousal abuse conviction and assaults on women is certainly something that should have women groups and others fighting such abuse concerned.
QUESTION: But his legal history goes well beyond just spousal abuse, correct? Earlier this year, the San Francisco Chronicle noted his past conviction for “spousal abuse, legal sanctions for being a slumlord and a restraining order keeping him away from” former Everyone Loves Raymond TV actor Brad Garrett. Schaefer has also been disbarred from practicing law in California and Nevada. But nearly no outlets in southern California reported this during the primaries. How disappointing was this?
DD: I was surprised. I know in 2018 there were several articles out of San Diego and other places. It was a dramatic story. For newspapers during the primary, maybe our race was just not a high priority to cover. But now that the field has shrunk from seven candidates to just two Democrats, I hope more media outlets will look more in-depth. I think the idea that somebody spends almost no money and beats out five decently funded Republicans is an interesting story that some newspapers should like.
Also the weirdness of Mike Schaefer holding in this office and being unrepentant for everything he has done, that some of the newspapers should pick up on that. I think that is a dramatic story. I think his record is important. I think we all run on our history. The slumlord history is something that is related to property, which is a big part of this job, and here is someone who has profited from that and had his troubles. He also gets angry very easily and is very litigious. By contrast, there’s of course some things in my past I would like to have done better, but no one has ever questioned my integrity.
Schaefer also hasn’t done much at the Board of Equalization. If you watch the live streams of the board meetings, it’s clear he brings little or no value. He rants about things that don’t matter and asks questions about things he’s supposed to know. You have to ask why are we paying this guy and his people to do absolutely nothing. This is another strength of mine. With my 30 years of experience, I won’t need to learn about the organization, history and duties of the Board of Equalization.
QUESTION: Then there was our exclusive investigation in March that found Schaefer repeatedly lied during the primary about Gov. Gavin Newsom endorsing him. Questions also arose about his claimed endorsements by Lt. Gov. Eleni Kounalakis and civil rights activist Dolores Huerta, and one day before a state deadline he removed these from his official candidate statement.
DD: I agree. Like I said, this is a person who should not be trusted. Lying is something he hasn’t given up. Things he said in your article were pretty unbelievable.
[Editor’s note: This included Schaefer admitting he knew Gov. Newsom hadn’t endorsed him, but said sometimes it’s simpler “to ask for forgiveness than permission.”]
Schaefer had a choice once he got elected. He could have said, “I’ve had a bad history, but now I am going to really concentrate on doing the right thing here in my final years on this planet, basically.” Some sort of redemption, but instead he went all in on using whatever resources he had to improve his own political future.
QUESTION: Still the November runoff seems a David and Goliath matchup. Schaefer is a millionaire incumbent who spent $127,000 of his own money in the primary. You are a civil servant who spent nearly nothing. And astonishingly, the California Democratic Party endorsed him. How realistic are your chances?
DD: Well if the voters pay attention, I think that we are going to win. But the endorsement thing is definitely hurting me because if I was endorsed or if the party had made no endorsement like four years ago, I would have more resources. This makes it difficult to get Democratic fundraisers to work for me. They just don’t want to work against the party’s endorsed candidate, even though it’s just embarrassing for the party given Schaefer’s history.
In 2018, Schaefer slipped [into office] last time because no one was paying attention. The party refused to endorse him because of his long legal history, and Schaefer was furious. So you expected him not to get it this time. But for his top staff positions, he hired his political consultant and the chairman of the Democratic Party of San Diego providing six-figure state salaries. That paid off by helping solidify his endorsement from the Democratic Party. So an awful lot of people who were not familiar with his background only saw he was the incumbent with party connections and then just checked the box for him.
I have talked to the party about trying to revisit Schaefer’s endorsement, but they told me, “Our hands are tied by the bylaws. He’s an incumbent. We can’t do anything.” It’s quite an embarrassing situation for them, and I think there is more humiliation to come if more media like the Chronicle covers it.
[Editor’s note: The California Democratic Party did not respond to multiple attempts to either confirm this or reaffirm their endorsement Schaefer.]
But back to my chances in November, if this all gets covered that will clearly help me. Plus in terms of the Republican vote, [Schaefer and I] are both Democrats, but the Republicans who pay attention will see I’ve defended Prop 13 my whole career.
During the 2020 election I was against Proposition 15 and 19. The assessors were extremely concerned about Proposition 15 [the proposed “split-roll” tax on commercial property that did not pass] that it was unimplementable. Proposition 19 [which did pass] was seen similarly. They are having a very difficult time implementing it. It eliminated the opportunity for many families to pass their tax breaks onto their children. I still don’t think voters fully understand that. The assessor offices are now having to deal with that. I was at the time standing on the sidelines screaming to everyone I knew, “Take a look at this law. You need to know that this is giving up your opportunity to pass your properties onto your children.”
And where was Mike Schaefer? He didn’t saying anything about it. Nothing.
QUESTION: Share the key elements of your platform.
DD: I am definitely running on a good-government platform. My No. 1 issue is to refocus the board on providing leadership that supports the organization. When it was broken up in 2018, all that’s left is the property tax department. So I would take the political hires by Mike Schaefer and use those positions to hire tax professionals. This will refocus energy to help the department do the job they are supposed to do.
Another thing, I want to be innovative in working with the assessors and the state legislators in crafting the laws. They propose tax law changes every year. The BOE staff has to respond and implement those changes, and they don’t always make sense. So I want the Board of Equalization to have more of a voice in Sacramento. We have all of these lawyers and experts in property tax law, yet the the Legislature seems to go off and come up with these property tax laws on their own without really consulting the assessors and the Board of Equalization as they really should.
For example, the assessor of Los Angeles was saying he can barely hire 50 new appraiser a year, but if Prop 15 had passed, they would have needed to hire 900 new appraisers to handle the new work that law would have created. The department does a lot of its own research on these things, but having a voice earlier on with these things would help. I know the assessors have a lobbyist, but I think we can be more innovative.
QUESTION: You are on the inside of the Board of Equalization. How disappointed were you by, first, the scandals that befell your organization and, second, do you agree with critics who think the board should be disbanded and the remaining staff and duties rolled up elsewhere in state government? And why?
DD: Yes, I was heartbroken. The people I work with and the different tax professionals are top notch, and they truly care about their jobs. So to have that sort of stain brought down upon by the politicians, it was terrible.
Then we had to go through this big breakup. It has been very disruptive, our sister agency [the California Department of Tax and Fee Administration] is having to do a lot of our human resources work. We went from an agency of 5,000 to an agency of 200. So now you have four board members overseeing just 200. We have these board meetings each month, and it takes a lot of resources from the remaining department. But we are kind of stuck with it.
For those who think the BOE should be broken up, I know many in my department would be fine with that. We would go to the Franchise Tax Board. We would go from having elected leadership to a politically appointed leader. Then again, I think some voters would prefer to have an elected official in charge because it involves their property taxes. People say Prop 13 is the third rail of California politics, but without voter representation, it would be that much easier for a future governor or other leaders to brush that aside.
From my perspective, I lean on the side that having an elected representative on the Board of Equalization is a good thing. However, having the right people is the important thing, and over the years, we’ve had a bad track record with that. They also each have six employees and two highly paid assistants. I think that could be all curtailed. I would like to give some of those resources given back to the department for the programs. If they don’t know what an LTA [letter to assessor] is, I don’t know what good they are doing for the people.
QUESTION: Would disbanding the BOE require simple legislation or a statewide ballot proposition?
DD: That is the big lift. It will require a change by constitutional amendment. That will require two-thirds of both houses and the signature of the governor. That would be a real big reach. They discuss it every now and then, and it’s never gone very far.
QUESTION: But let’s say that constitutional amendment did pass, how helpful would it be to have someone like you on the board to assist with the transition?
DD: I think it would be critical. I have thought about that a lot. I get in there, and two years later they take it away, and I would be fine with that. I would be happy to help usher the agency over and help guide it. Maybe at that point I retire or maybe I go back and help get it established at the Franchise Tax Board, which is where they said it would always end up.
That’s another reason in my mind for wanting to be there. The four board members could just shrug their shoulders and walk away, not that would do that for certain. But I feel I could be very helpful. That’s what my campaign is all about – being helpful.