John Metcalfe is CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, based in Oakland. His coverage focuses on climate change and the science of cities.
While the 2012 presidential election will likely be the most expensive in history, a similar money-race is happening on the local level.
The speed at which federal campaigns blow through money has become terrifying. The 2012 election will surely go down as the most expensive in history, with races for Congress and the White House sucking in $6 billion in contributions, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
It's less visible, but this accelerated spending is happening at the micro-level, too. Politicos hungering for the keys to America's major cities are pounding through the historical ceilings of campaign contributions. Take a look at today's election in San Diego: Two candidates sparring for mayor's office have spent $10 million between them, making it the city's priciest mayoral election, ever. That's nothing, though, compared to the more than $100 million recently doled out by the mayor of a certain East Coast 'burg that rhymes with "Moo Mork Mitty."
A mayoral campaign's moneybags swell or shrivel depending on a city's political situation. Factors that influence donors include the existence of viable candidates, whether an incumbent is involved and the strength of a jurisdiction's fundraising infrastructure. But a couple things have changed in recent years to turn these pony races into big-dollar affairs throughout the entire country.
"There seems to be more out-of-town money funding local elections than there used to be a decade ago,” says Chuck Thies, a political consultant and radio host in Washington, D.C. The Internet helps foster this geographically wide financing, because candidates can "nationalize" issues like education reform or gay rights to snag sympathetic donors in scores of states. "Campaigns can get the small-dollar contributions that add up."
The private sector has also become more dependent on local governments, Thies says, especially since the economy soured. Business owners contribute to candidates in the hopes of not getting rich, exactly, but simply breaking even.
Take a look at these recent campaigns in major U.S. cities and note the precedent-setting harvesting of ducats. It's enough to make you wonder what other offices could be subject to multimillion-dollar campaigns in the near future. Town alderman, library trustee, head dog catcher?
King of the municipal rainmakers is businessman Michael Bloomberg, the fiercest supporter of Mayor Michael Bloomberg. The 11th wealthiest man in America keeps his coffers brimming with copious ladles of cash from his media fortune. (When he's not splashing money on Florida elections, that is.) In 2009, he spent $109 million of his own money to secure a third term – which to folks who like to break things down, amounted at one point to $1 million a day.
By comparison, the sucker who came in second place in 2009, former comptroller William Thompson, Jr., expended $9 million. Not being a billionaire has proven fatal to Bloomberg's perennial challengers. In the 2005 and 2001 elections, he won his mayor's hat after spending epic wads of $85 million and $74 million, respectively.
The Windy Wonder is a bit of an oddball when it comes to mayoral elections. For decades, it's been helmed by one or another form of Daley riding a roaring campaign steamroller. But compare the last two elections. In 2007, Richard M. Daley drew from a nearly $6 million war chest to smoosh a luckless county-court clerk and an anti-corruption activist who goes by “Doc.” That was nothing compared to what would follow, though.
When Daley retired in 2011, Rahm Emanuel quickly went about establishing his dominance as the new silverback gorilla of the campaign jungle. Using connections in Chicago, Hollywood and New York, he amassed an Olympic-sized pool of money that lubricated his shimmy to the top. Although Emanuel was not trying to unseat a well-entrenched incumbent, he still managed to raise about $13 million. His closest rival, longtime Chicago pol Gery Chico, must still be wondering what happened – he only collected $2.5 million.
The District welcomed its first million-dollar candidates in 1998, and since then mayoral races have become more and more bloated affairs. In 2002, Anthony Williams slid into office with $1.4 million in campaign cash. Four years later, Adrian Fenty won the day after attracting $3.8 million. Fenty then busted the bank by generating $5 million in 2010 – and somehow still lost to Vincent Gray, who spent about $2.8 million, give or take whatever came from those alleged straw donors.
Campaign observer Chuck Thies recalls Fenty taking local fundraising to a "new level," complete with junkets to L.A. with "Hollywood types" and soirees at D.C. mansions that had never opened their doors to candidates before. "Fenty attracted a lot conservative money" from all over America, Thies says. "They saw that here's a black Democrat willing to take on teacher's unions."
Also, it helps that D.C. mayoral candidates and business owners share a healthy sense of quid pro quo. “There's been an increase in understanding by local businesses,” says Thies, “that the more money you give to a politician, the more likely you are in the future to land a contract from the city."
The almost obscene political spending in New York and Chicago is foreign to Philly, because a couple of years ago the city passed a campaign-finance law that limited the amounts people and PACs can donate. (Some folks attribute this law to Mayor John Street, whose office was bugged by the FBI in 2003 during an anti-corruption investigation of City Hall.) The limits were tested in 2007 when Michael Nutter ran for office – his campaign reeled in almost $8 million in funding, while his competitor, GOP candidate Al Taubenberger, was left jingling $157,177 in pocket change. Nutter then beat T. Milton Street in 2011 after raising a modest $2 million; he had the incumbent advantage, after all.
There is some indication that in the aftermath of Citizens United, the cost of running for mayor in Philadelphia could rocket up and up. Zack Stalberg, president of the campaign-watchdog group Committee of Seventy, says that a few money-givers have begun to test out the use of Super PACS. "There is now a growing fear that a PAC could develop on the local level" in time for the 2015 primary, Stalberg says. “That could trump the campaign finance law.... The primary could be decided by somebody with deep pockets.”
It's a shame that Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa terms out next year, because it'd be interesting to see how huge of a money pile his political machine could haul in. In 2005, the mayor surfed into office on a wave of green totaling about $4.3 million. Struggling behind him was former mayor James Hahn, who collected half that amount. The 2009 race generated less cash because it wasn't as competitive – Villaraigosa raised more than $3 million, or 14 times what his closest competitor scrounged up – but next year's contest is shaping up to be an extravagant carnival of cash. "This year the race is open. Two top-tier candidates have already raised more than $2 million each and a third one has raised a million and a half," says Fernando Guerra, director of Loyola Marymount University's Center for the Study of Los Angeles. The fundraising in 2013 is "clearly going to blow through" the records of past years.