A deep-pocketed campaign committee that usually operates at the state level is taking aim at a Sacramento City Council candidate over his pension.
The California Senior Advocates League, a multimillion-dollar political committee that has targeted public employee pay in the past, has funded a wave of campaign mailers attacking council candidate Julius Cherry. A former city Fire Department chief, Cherry is running against nonprofit executive director Rick Jennings and construction worker Abe Snobar in the race for District 7, representing the Pocket, Greenhaven and Valley Hi neighborhoods.
Mail pieces have arrived at homes this week comparing Cherry to Julius Caesar, calling him the city’s “pension king” and featuring a photo of Cherry wearing a leaf crown under the phrase, “Hail, No!”
Cherry’s annual pension is $188,212. That annual pension was the highest of any former city employee as of 2012, according to the mailer and Transparent California, an organization that tracks public employee pension data around the state.
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In an interview Tuesday, Cherry said the annual pension figure cited on the mail piece is accurate, and that his pension is “clearly very substantial.”
“I earned my pension after 30 years of service in a system I didn’t create or advocate for,” he added. “I didn’t break any rules.”
Cherry has been retired from the city since 2007. He is now a practicing attorney.
The mailer also cites a 2007 article in The Sacramento Bee raising questions about an arrangement Cherry made with city officials to retire from the Fire Department and then return to the workforce as a retired annuitant. The ad accuses Cherry of double-dipping.
“No one ever accused me of spiking my pension,” Cherry said. “(The Senior Advocates League committee) took a kernel of truth and turned it into something sinister.”
Cherry said CalPERS, the state’s pension fund, questioned the arrangement to have Cherry return to work, saying he was likely not eligible to receive his pension and work for the city because he was younger than 55 at the time. Cherry ended up retiring and not returning to the city after having hip replacement surgery.
“I pulled the plug on it,” Cherry said of the idea to come back as an annuitant. “I did it because I didn’t want anybody questioning my integrity.”
Cherry, Jennings and Snobar are seeking to replace Councilman Darrell Fong, who is stepping down to run for state Assembly. The council race is already attracting big dollars. Both Cherry and Jennings have raised more than $100,000, with more money expected to flow into the race in the final weeks before the June primary.
The Senior Advocates League mailer was the first outside expenditure of the campaign. When Cherry got word of the independent expenditure last week, he criticized the mailer and Jennings.
Independent expenditures are, by law, made without a candidate’s knowledge.
“To me, the issue is whether we plan to play fair,” Cherry said in an interview last week. “I think that people should get to decide on the merits of the individual candidates who the next council member will be.”
Cherry asked Jennings at a debate last week to sign a form pledging to “publicly condemn and repudiate any such negative campaigning irrespective of which of us is attacked.” Jennings declined, although he has signed the city’s code of fair campaign practices.
“I can’t control the IEs (independent expenditures),” Jennings said. “And there’s going to be stuff that comes out against me.”
Jennings said Cherry sprang the unofficial pledge on him before he could consult his campaign team.
“You put something like that in front of me in front of everybody? That’s not how you do it,” Jennings said.
Deborah Howard, executive director of the California Senior Advocates League, said the organization doesn’t “think (Cherry) is the right person for that seat.”
“(His pension) is one mark highlighting his contrast with the other candidates,” she said. “Generally, we’re a group of people who believe that we need to have less stridency and more balance.”
The Senior Advocates League is a heavy hitter in statewide politics but has not been active in city campaigns. Campaign finance documents show the committee has spent $22,971 on mail pieces opposing Cherry.
In 2012, the group was part of a network of committees that went after Democratic candidates for the state Senate in an attempt to thwart the Democrats’ attempt to achieve a two-thirds majority in the Senate. Some ads criticized the salaries and benefits afforded to senators, but were deemed to include exaggerated or outdated numbers.
Campaign finance documents show the committee raised just $9,000 last year. However, it raised more than $2.1 million in 2012, including $1.2 million from Reform California Now, a statewide independent expenditure committee, records show. Reform California has received large donations from Philip Morris, Chevron and the California Real Estate Independent Expenditure Committee.
Other large donors to the Senior Advocates League include prominent Republican donor Charles Munger Jr., who gave the committee $500,000 in 2012, records show.