Worcester’s Elected Officials Used Own Money to Fuel Campaigns
Friday, January 24, 2014
Another challenger and attorney, Morris Bergman, spent $12,000 on his own campaign for an at-large seat on the council.
Year-end campaign finance disclosures released this week show how much money was in play during November's elections for city council and school committee, proving it takes money to win in politics even at the local level.
Gaffney says that awareness factored into the decision to self-fund his campaign as a political newcomer.
“It's a simple answer,” Gaffney said. “When other people give you money, they want something out of it. ... They always want something.”
While individual donations are limited to $500 annually in Massachusetts, candidates may use an unlimited amount of their own money.
“The financing of local elections is not widely studied,” according to Clark University's Robert Boatright, an associate professor of Political Science who looks at local campaign finances every two years with his Money and Politics class. (Gaffney said the university's reports informed his campaign finance strategy.)
“There is a conventional wisdom about the relationship between money and politics at the state and federal level, but few people have studied whether a similar relationship exists at the local level. And what we do know about municipal election financing largely comes from big cities," Boatright says, "like New York and Chicago."
Rather restrictive state finance law
In Massachusetts, rather robust campaign finance regulations require periodic filings through the state's Office of Campaign and Political Finance, and political candidates running in cities of more than 100,000 residents (Boston, Cambridge, Lowell, Springfield, and Worcester) are subject to further requirements.
The Commonwealth limits individual's contributions to $500 apiece per candidate and Political Action Committee (PAC), and a maximum $12,500 in total annual contributions. Lobbyists are limited to $200 per candidate, committee, and PAC; and the same annual ceiling as individuals.
Current contribution limits were set in 1994 and are low compared to many states. But there is no limit on how much a candidate may contribute to his or her own campaign.
“The campaign finance law requires disclosure, whether at the state level or a local level,” said Jason Tait, OCPF's director of communication and public education. He said his office provides education to candidates and the public, forms, and the electronic filing system. “We think our system is pretty good. The public can access (campaign finance reports) and get the information they want.”
Money, incumbency, and turnout mostly predict outcome
Local election outcomes depend largely on turnout (with incumbents favored the fewer people head to the polls) but contributions can be an easy predictor of winners and losers. A paltry 14.35 percent of registered voters cast ballots this past November.
With two exceptions, those city council candidates who raised the most earned the most votes.
There were two instances for council where candidates with smaller war chests won: Incumbent Councilor (and former mayor) Konstantina Lukes received 1,783 more votes than challenger Michael Germain despite Lukes spending almost half the amount; and district 5's seat where former Councilor Gary Rosen beat out incumbent Bill Eddy, overcoming an eight-to-one spending disadvantage. (Rosen spent just $2,045.21 to Eddy's $16,478.67.)
The amount of reported campaign spending by council contenders ranged from $100 (William Coleman, who received an 8th place 4,000 votes) to $39,607 (Bergman, who was the 3rd place finisher for at-large seats with 6,807 votes).
Because Massachusetts allows elected officials to roll over the remainder of the balance to the next election cycle, Councilor Philip Palmieri had the single largest balance in 2013, and concluded the year with $51,817.36 still on hand.
“As you can see from our data, in Worcester it can take a substantial amount of money (approximately $20,000) for a non-incumbent to win an election,” Boatright said. “Incumbents tend to have a variety of advantages in terms of name recognition and an ongoing campaign organization, and can often win re-election with less. This is particularly the case for the school committee.”
Comparing elections in the five largest cities, Boatright said population and median income roughly correlates with the amount of campaign contributions raised. “There is also tremendous variability from one election to the next — turnout and contributions are driven by the appearance of competitive non-incumbents. I would assume these candidates are driven in part by contentious local issues — some years have them, some don't.”
'Shoe leather' trumps money
But Rosen's win and Coleman's respectable finish do fly at odds with the notion that contributions invariably win elections.
In local races, “ideas, issues, and shoe leather always trump money,” responded Tom Finneran, a GoLocalWorcester MINDSETTER™ and former speaker of the state House of Representatives from 1996 to 2004. “Local issues demand local knowledge and attention, and attentive, responsive incumbents expend time, energy, and sweat on behalf of their constituents. They earn electoral support through deeds rather than money-bought slogans.”
John Monfredo, a GoLocalWorcester MINDSETTER™ and Worcester Public Schools committee member who received another term last November, expressed a similar sentiment. “I believe that a grassroots campaign is the most effective process for you (to) get the chance to hear the concerns of the people firsthand and you have an opportunity to tell people why you are running.”
“However, one still needs the resources to pass out flyers and get name recognition through the lawn signs,” he continued.
“It depends,” opined Pam Wilmot, executive director of Common Cause Massachusetts, a state affiliate of the national campaign reform group. “There's plenty of shoe-string elections. And then there are others.”
Big average dollar difference between winners and losers
In Worcester's 2011 municipal elections, the average incumbent in Worcester raised three-times the amount of money as non-incumbents — $26,448 versus $8,111 — and the same proportion separated winners from losers.
A well-contested mayoral election in the city in 2007 spurred the highest fundraising levels in recent elections by Boatright's analysis.
Candidate fundraising between winners and losers and incumbents and challengers was nearly equitable in Lowell, but the dollar disparity was five-times in Boston and over six-times in Cambridge.
While PACs and other special interest groups pour large amounts of funds into higher offices, their recorded impact is minor in Worcester.
Incumbency would appear to be a stronger force in recent school committee elections, where six of seven board members received new terms. Hilda Ramirez was the sole victorious challenger in the nine-way race after spending only dollars more than ousted incumbent Donna Colorio.
“No surprise, incumbents win,” responded Peter Quist, research director for the National Institute on Money in State Politics. While his organization focuses solely on state-level campaigns, Quist said the incumbent success rate there had been between 89 percent and 94 over the past two years.
“When you have the fundraising advantage that most incumbents do, the win rate is also substantial,” around 96 percent, he said.
While few organizations look at the role of money in municipal elections, there is one database getting underway at Rice University in Texas. Lamenting the lack of scholarly research on local elections, the Local Elections in America Project (LEAP) at Rice is beginning to provide a foundation for researching money in municipal politics. The project currently covers a little more than a third of the nation's counties.
What to do for a clearer picture?
Even in states with good reporting like Massachusetts, Wilmot says financial rules can be improved. “There's too much money (that goes unreported),” she said. “Secret money shouldn't be in politics.”
Regarding restrictions on individual contributions, Wilmot said her organization was happy with current limits. “For us, it's a matter of limiting the influence of people who can give 500, 1,000, 5,000 dollars, which is a very small amount of the public.”
Through lower limits, better disclosure, and restrictions on outside group spending, Wilmot said the financing of elections is spread over a broader base of citizens.
“We need more people to participate in our campaigns, not less.”
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