Winners took office carrying almost $600,000 in debt, while 34 defeated must raise or lose nearly $500,000
Part 2 in a Series
Updated Tuesday April 7, 2015 8:56am
“Many people are in the dark when it comes to money,
and I’m going to turn on the lights. — Suze Orman
Who could have imagined that the scramble for 11 spanking new political posts to oversee a new form of governance for the City of Austin would unleash a torrent of political spending, the likes of which Austin had never seen?
Or—perhaps even more startling—that 43 of the competing candidates collectively would pour $1.3 million of their own money into the quest?
These staggering totals captured The Austin Bulldog’s attention and prompted an extensive examination. This entailed reviewing campaign finance reports filed by all 78 candidates, covering all five reporting cycles, from July 2014 through January 2015. Our examination also sorted out the full particulars for the $1.3 million that the candidates loaned to their campaigns or spent outright in hopes of reimbursement.
For you who wonder who spent how much to win or lose a place on the council dais, this one’s for you. You’re invited to follow me, the guy with the flashlight, as we jump down the rabbit hole of campaign finance as it was utilized in the one-off election of 2014.
You already know Steve Adler won election in 2014 and buried chief opponent Mike Martinez with a landslide mayoral runoff margin of 67-33 percent. Adler also set all-time records by spending more than $1.5 million on his campaign, of which more than $387,000 came out of his own deep, deep pockets.
In round figures the 78 candidates, including Adler, spent $5.6 million campaigning. Political action committees (PACs) dished out $726,000 in direct expenditures to bring total spending to an astronomical, for Austin, $6.3 million. (PAC spending was detailed in Part 1 of this series published March 27.)
While money is an important tool for an otherwise viable candidate who spends it effectively, the best funded candidates did not win all the council districts. Did they misspend? Did they flub it on the campaign trail? Only the voters know for sure. But, money be damned, the fact is, four of the 10 winning district candidates were outspent by their opponents—some only by little, some by huge amounts.
These results seem to bear out an essential truth about political contests: you don’t absolutely need more money than your opponent, but you do need enough to run a viable campaign.
For those who like to swim through deeply detailed spreadsheets, take a deep breath and dive into the Campaign Finance Analiysis for 2014 Election of Mayor and Council Candidates. This compilation lays out the contributions, expenditures, loans, and cash on hand for each of the 78 candidates, through all five reporting cycles, and provides totals for each race. And for good measure the analysis delves into the loans, loans recouped, and PAC spending.
If you’re not doing the deep dive that’s fine. Just hang on, read the rest, and check out the handy charts that capture important highlights.
Campaign savvy beats cash, sometimes
District 3—Jose Valera spent more than any of the other 11 candidates seeking this seat—and failed to make the runoff. In fact, he spent more in the general election of November 4 than Sabino “Pio” Renteria or Susana Almanza spent including their December 16 runoff. Ultimate winner Renteria was slightly outspent by his sister Almanza but won with a 20-point margin. Almanza raised less than $28,000 in contributions and Renteria barely $23,000. But each of them also got a boost of $28,000 from the Austin Fair Campaign Fund (which, as The Austin Bulldog reported December 1, 2014, should not have been paid because they did not meet the qualifications explicitly set forth in City Code Section 2-2-11). (Underlined word added in update to correct error.)
District 6—Candidate Jimmy Flannigan lost to Don Zimmerman by 96 votes in combined tallies for Travis and Williamson counties. This despite Flannigan raising nearly twice as much in contributions, gaining more than five times as much support from PACs, and ending up outspending Zimmerman by more than $23,000. With PAC spending added to their respective totals, Zimmerman was outspent by nearly $38,000. Not to mention that Zimmerman was hit with $8,000 in PAC attack ads, while PACs spent no money criticizing Flannigan.
District 9—Kathie Tovo got 49 percent of the November 4 votes but won when fellow incumbent council member Chris Riley, who got 40 percent, opted out of the runoff. When PAC spending is added to the candidates’ own, nearly equal, outlays then Riley’s total support was $36,000 more than Tovo’s. He benefitted from nearly $54,000 in direct PAC spending on his behalf while Tovo got only $19,000 in PAC support.
District 10—Runoff candidate Mandy Dealey spent nearly $293,000—almost $128,000 more than opponent Sheri Gallo—and still lost by a thumping 55-45 percent.
Candidates dug deep to run
Forty-three candidates loaned their campaigns a collective $1,291,717. (See chart.)
When the smoke cleared on the political battlefield, 11 of them recouped $201,750 through reimbursement from unspent contributions. (Loans themselves are by law contributions once deposited in a campaign account.)
Election winners took office carrying debts totaling $597,264.
The 34 defeated candidates must either raise the $492,703 to pay off their debts or say good-bye to it.
This personal spending binge is tallied in the accompanying chart: 2014 Candidate Loans to Their Campaigns.
Two of the 11 winners put not a dime of their own money into campaigning: Ora Houston in District 1 and Sheri Gallo in District 10.
Another couple of winning candidates pushed personal funds into the political pot but spent conservatively enough, or raised enough, to reimburse themselves and enter office debt-free: Council Members Delia Garza in District 2 recovered the $6,515 she invested. Ellen Troxclair in District 8 pulled back into her bank account the full $55,000 she had deposited for her campaign.
The other seven newly installed elected officials are in hock for as little as $1,300 (Renteria) or as much as $387,239 (Adler).
Adding salt to the indebted winners’ financial wounds is the fact that they are prohibited by Austin City Charter Article III, Section 8(F)(2) from soliciting or accepting donations to retire their debts.
Although those in hock are barred from fundraising now, if they should run for reelection and raise more money than they spend in that future election cycle, then they can legally reimburse themselves. Council Member Sheryl Cole did just that in 2009. She went into that reelection campaign carrying $45,000 in debt from her initial election campaign of 2006, as reflected in her January 15, 2009, campaign finance report. By the time she filed her May 1, 2009, report she had repaid herself the entire amount. Cole, probably foreseeing slim chances for winning the 2014 mayoral contest, plunked down just pocket change, $1,600. She placed a distant third behind Adler and Martinez in the November 4 general election, but departed the scene without a financial millstone around her neck.
Aside from the mayor, deepest in hock is District 9 winner Kathie Tovo, the only holdover from the previous council. She not only took $100,000 out of her piggybank for the 2014 campaign but entered the 2014 fray with $61,807 in financial baggage left over from her 2011 campaign to unseat incumbent Randi Shade.
But, like our mayor, Tovo can afford it. She reported earning $900,000 in 2014 from oil and gas income and surface easement sales. And that was just a fraction of her income, as reported, along with the financial statements of all 78 candidates, in the Bulldog story of September 30, 2014, “Candidates Rich and Poor Competing.”
Defeated candidates free to recoup
The 34 election losers who collectively flushed down the drain almost $500,000 in efforts to kickstart a political career are perfectly free to keep on begging for bucks to retire their debts, as provided by Austin City Charter Article III, Section 8(F)(4).
But, after losing, trying to get people to contribute to retire one’s campaign debt is a hard sell. People like to back winners, losers not so much. For example, when former Council Member Brigid Shea lost her bid to unseat incumbent Mayor Lee Leffingwell in the May 12, 2012, election, she walked away $62,500 in debt. Shea continued fundraising and managed to get back less than a third of that amount and wound up with a final campaign debt of nearly $43,000. Given her successful campaign for Travis County Commissioner in 2014, one could easily argue that Shea’s financial loss was just the cost of doing political business and staying in the political limelight.
As a result of losing his 2014 mayoral bid, former council member Martinez can pass the hat for the $100,000 he loaned his campaign, making him the most indebted among losing candidates. However, his personal financial statements, published by the Bulldog, reflect significant wealth from investments. So, even if that $100,000 is gone, gone, gone, it isn’t likely to put a serious dent in his net worth.
District 10 candidate Robert Thomas also loaned his campaign $100,000. He recovered $56,680 of that amount, and remains No. 2 in campaign debt among the losing candidates. He’s in the hole for $43,320.
Close behind Thomas in the debt race are District 7 candidates Jimmy Paver ($40,000) and Jeb Boyt ($38,025), District 6 candidate Jay Wiley ($35,173), District 10 candidate Dealey ($35,100), and District 9 candidate Riley ($33,000). (See chart for the full list.)
One must hope that none of these candidates went crazy reliving some wild night in Las Vegas and bet their rent money on winning a council seat. But examination of loan figures compared to financial statements does raise an eyebrow in some cases.
Take District 4 candidate Sharon Mays, for example. She is a Realtor who, according to her Statement of Financial Information published by the Bulldog, drew unemployment benefits of at least $10,000 but less than $20,000 in 2013. Yet in 2014 she managed to cough up $20,100 for her brief political fling. That loan is more than seven times the total of $2,650 in campaign contributions she raised. She placed a distant third in the November 4 general election with 8.5 percent of the vote.
Most district elections not cheap
Campaigns for the 10 newly formed districts collectively pulled in contributions totaling a bit more than $2.7 million (compared to $1.8 million just for the mayor’s contest). Averaging in other words about $274,000 per district.
But the distribution of spending across districts was lopsided. (See chart: Total Spending for Austin’s 2014 Elections.)
The cheapest districts
District 2 had only four candidates, three of which together spent a collective total of barely $5,100. Delia Garza won without a runoff and 66 percent of the votes cast November 4. The four candidates spent $56,000 while PACs spent nearly $18,000 for a grand total of nearly $74,000.
District 1 was won by Ora Houston in a runoff against DeWayne Lofton. Counting PAC expenditures, spending totaled $179,000—more than double what the District 2 contest cost but with twice as many candidates, too. Houston spent more than $99,000 or 58 percent of the money put into that race and won her runoff with a big fat margin of 74-26 percent.
District 5 was won outright by Ann Kitchen with 54 percent of the votes November 4. The former state representative bested six others. Kitchen alone spent more than $144,000, which is 68 percent of all District 5 spending that totaled more than $211,000. PACs spent only $6,100 in this race.
District 3 featured brother Renteria besting younger sister Almanza 60-40 percent in a runoff. Total candidate spending hit $222,000 and PACs threw in $43,000 for a combined total of more than $265,000.
District 6 pitted Flannigan in a runoff against Zimmerman, the pair that placed ahead of four others in the general election. Flannigan’s campaign spending of nearly $87,000 was assisted by more than $27,000 in support from independent PACs for a total of more than $114,000. That was $46,000 more than Zimmerman’s $68,000-plus. Grand total District 6 spending was $322,000.
Most expensive districts
District 10 had eight candidates who collectively spent $716,000 and PACs threw in another $122,000 to total slightly more than $838,000. Gallo’s total campaign spending was $165,000, while Mandy Dealey spent more than $293,000.
District 9 victor Tovo avoided a runoff when Riley withdrew. But, even so, spending exceeded $536,000 in this three-person race, in part because PACs poured in $75,000 of that, nearly $54,000 of it to support Riley.
District 8 matched Ellen Troxclair against Ed Scruggs in the runoff. She spent $98,000 and got $32,000 in PAC support for a total of more than $130,000. He spent more than $85,000 and got $18,000 in PAC help for $103,000.
Troxclair won by 56 votes, the closest margin in the 2014 elections. The five candidates running in District 8 spent a total of $387,000. With PAC spending the race topped $450,000.
District 4 pitted Greg Casar against Laura Pressley in the runoff that he won 65-35 percent. He raised and spent $180,000 and PACs kicked in more than $30,000 for a total of $210,000. Pressley loaned her campaign $22,000 and got no help from PACs. She raised $94,000—less than half what Casar’s supporters contributed.
Pressley’s numerous post-election complaints and a lawsuit over voting procedures have not overturned results that saw Casar sworn in with other council members January 6. District 4 spending by all eight candidates and PACs totaled $443,000.
District 7 spending by eight candidates topped $327,000 and PACs spent more than $23,000 for a total of more than $350,000. Of that amount, eventual winner Leslie Pool got nearly $28,000 as her share of the Fair Campaign Funds, bringing her total fundraising to $92,000. She also loaned her campaign $40,500 and got nearly $10,000 in backing from independent PACs for a total of more than $127,000. Runoff opponent Jeb Boyt loaned his campaign $38,000 and raised more than $48,000 for total spending of $87,000-plus.
Withered grass roots
Wasn’t conversion to the 10-1 system of electing council members from geographic districts supposed to make it cheaper to run for office?
Well, maybe yes and maybe no.
Yes, only a tenth of the city’s population has to be reached through door knocking, phone banking and advertising.
No, because there was in most (not all) of the newly drawn 10 council districts a lot more candidates in the competition.
Why so many candidates in 2014?
For one thing, there were four more positions on the ballot.
Further, Austin hadn’t had an election in which every seat was up for grabs since April 6, 1985. A City Charter amendment approved by voters in Proposition 6 January 19, 1985, took effect with the April 1985 council election. As a result the seven electees drew lots to establish staggered, three-year terms. Nevermore would there be a ballot listing all seven seats.
But power rarely gives itself away. Even with staggered terms, there has almost never been a time when at least one incumbent was not running for reelection (Charles Urdy in 1991 and Betty Dunkerley in 2005 were solo incumbents seeking reelection). Usually there has been more than one incumbent looming large over the field of would-be challengers.
Since that 1985 changeover election to establish staggered terms, the only zero-incumbent election was held November 6, 2001. That was to fill the mayor’s seat for the unexpired term of Kirk Watson, who had resigned to run for higher office. Even then, the winner was former Council Member Gus Garcia—who had previously served four terms on the council and had been off of the dais for just 10 months before being elected mayor without a runoff.
2014 a wide-open free-for-all
It’s a fact of political life that incumbents start with a big advantage in name recognition and fundraising moxie. Trying to knock them off is not for the faint-hearted.
In the 2014 election 78 people vied for 11 seats on the dais, an average of seven candidates per seat. Contrast that to the 2012 election, for example, when Mayor Lee Leffingwell and three incumbent council members ran for reelection. The four places on the ballot drew a total of 14 people to run—an average of 3.5 people per position.All incumbents breezed to victory without a runoff.
An incalculable draw in the 2014 election was the added excitement about being involved in an historic moment in Austin’s history, when every part of the city would, at long last, have a council member to call its own. As I wrote in 2011 when mapping four decades of election history, Maps Prove a Select Few Govern Austin, “The at-large system effectively means that all citizens—all 800,000 of us—are represented by every member of the city council. This system fails to make any one council member responsible for our concerns, or those of our neighbors. When every council member is responsible to every citizen, by definition, no one council member is responsible to a particular citizen.”
The opportunity afforded by the transition to the 10-1 plan put the whole shooting match back on the ballot for the first time in three decades. And, only in District 9 were there incumbents.
Hence the tsunami of candidates. No doubt there would’ve been even more people running had District 9 been incumbent-less, as only one new challenger stepped into that contest.
Still, the idea of winning the brass ring with a grassroots campaign that relies almost exclusively on shoe leather was squashed to some extent—especially in districts encompassing the more affluent parts of the city. It’s entirely logical to think that a campaign involving only a tenth of the population should be cheaper than trying to target voters throughout the city. But the total spending by candidates in most of the 10 districts showed otherwise. The only low-budget winners were Garza in District 2 and Renteria in District 3.
When the 2016 elections roll around there will be five incumbents—Casar, Gallo, Garza, Pool, and Zimmerman—all armed with experience on the dais, familiarity with current issues, and heightened name recognition, and all presumably eager to build on their first-term records.
That’s not a situation that bodes well for future grassroots candidates with meager financial resources.
In 2014, grassroots candidates had their one and only foreseeable great chance, an opportunity not likely to come again.
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