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Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Big Gamble: Financing a Political Campaign

Written by Roberta Biros

Some would say that 2009 was a yawner of a political year. In Pennsylvania, the only statewide races were for judges (races which many found to be lack-luster). In Mercer County, there was only one countywide race of any consequence on the ballot, and that was the race for Mercer County Treasurer. Last year I outlined the details about campaign financing as it related to the coffers of our State Legislators [read the full blog post HERE]. This year I’d like to outline the specifics of the only countywide race in detail.

The race in question was between 16-year republican incumbent Ginny Steese-Richardson and democrat newcomer Roberta Biros (yes, that’s me). Both candidates ran unopposed in the primary and won their nominations without much excitement or fan fair. The political excitement began after the primary when Steese-Richardson and Biros went on a head-to-head to battle for votes. While shaking hands at fairs might be free, campaigning can be very expensive. The content of this article will focus on the money spent in the County Treasurer race in 2009.

Let us first review the results of the election (for those of you that are not familiar with them). According to the records of the Mercer County Elections Bureau, the OFFICIAL results of the election were:

ROBERTA BIROS (DEM): 6,049 ~ 32% of the vote
GINNY STEESE RICHARDSON (REP): 12,884 ~ 68% of the vote

Comments regarding the results of the election have been mixed. I've said that I thought I (Biros) did horribly, but I've been told by many that my results were actually pretty good for a newcomer with no name recognition (especially considering that I had absolutely no support from the leadership of the Democrat Party, and my opponent had amazing backing from incumbents . . . republicans and democrats alike).

Total spending by the candidates and their committees in 2009 totaled $36,779.04, and it is broken down as follows:

ROBERTA BIROS (DEM): $ 8,218.86 ~ 22% of the spending
GINNY STEESE RICHARDSON (REP): $28,559.18 ~ 78% of the spending

It should be noted that the spending for Steese-Richardson included the reports for the candidate and her committee. Not included is the spending done by the Mercer County GOP or the Pennsylvania State GOP in order to assist Steese-Richardson. These numbers would be especially interesting since both political groups provided much support to Mrs. Richardson.

The spending for Biros includes only data from the candidate report as Biros formed no political committee. As with Steese-Richardson, there are no numbers included for spending by the Democrat Committee. Biros did receive the benefit of slate cards and advertising by the Mercer Democrat Party, but they would have gladly removed her name from the advertising if they thought they could have gotten away with it (this is according to Democrat County Commissioner Ken Ammann). The numbers presented are the dollars spent directly by the candidates and their campaign committees (if applicable).

Anything interesting as far as the spending goes?

I found many of Mrs. Richardson's expenses personally interesting, but not worth my time or effort in this post (with the exception of a few humorous items outlined at the end of this article). I personally don't think that every dinner at Golden Corral, breakfast at the Knights of Columbus, or admission to an ice cream social should be included as campaign expenditures, but that is just me. Since every trip out the door is technically “campaigning”, one must determine the difference between actual “campaign expenses” and the “cost of campaigning”, which are clearly two different things.

As far as the expenses incurred by Biros, nothing stands out here either as all expenditures were reasonable, but you can all feel free to take a look for yourselves. Campaign finance reports are available at the Bureau of Elections at the Court House. You can look for free, but copies will cost you $0.25 each.

Summary of Expenses:

When looking at total dollars spent, Biros managed to fair well for the money spent. In only spending 22% of the cash, she was able to secure 32% of the votes. Further analysis of the spending totals shows that Steese-Richardson (and her committee) spent $2.21 per vote in her campaign, and Biros spent $1.36 per vote. In the end, Steese-Richardson simply had MORE MONEY to spread around in the countywide race . . . and, thus, she could afford to “buy more votes”. It just goes to show that money is everything . . . in politics anyway.

That, therefore, brings us to where those campaign dollars came from.

Summary of Contributions:

In the case of Biros, all of the dollars spent came from the candidate’s personal funds. No campaign contributions were accepted, and those that were received were refused voided and uncashed. This was clearly outlined in my blog post titled “Comments Regarding Campaign Finances” [read the full story HERE].

Steese-Richardson, however, ran a typical campaign that was financed by everyone BUT Steese-Richardson. The candidate report for Steese-Richardson does show that the candidate spent $2,166.59 of her own money, but the rest of the money was received through donations. During 2009, Steese-Richardson started with an amount of $5,251.06 in her campaign account and then raised an additional $26,572.37 in contributions. The contributions came from the typical sources as follows:

Contribution from the Republican Committee and well-known and loyal Republicans

Yes, I suppose it should only be expected that Mrs. Richardson would receive money from her fellow Republicans. Here are just a few of the specifics along with the amounts that they contributed for your reading pleasure:

Mercer County Republican Committee ($500)

Dave King, chairman of the Republican Committee ($260)

Phil English, former Republican Congressman ($100)

Friends of Dick Stevenson, the campaign committee representing the Republican Representative Dick Stevenson ($200)

Robbins for Senate Committee, the campaign committee representing the Republican Senator Bob Robbins ($250)

Bob and Cindy Robbins, Republican State Senator and his wife ($200)

Michele and Guy Brooks, Republican State Representative and her husband ($75)

John Lechner, Republican County Commissioner ($125)

Robert Kochems, Republican District Attorney ($200) ---- Oooops. My mistake. I’m so sorry. District Attorney is actually a Democrat and a member of the Mercer County Democrat Executive Committee. I seem to get confused by that, but then again District Attorney Kochems seems to get that “political party thing” confused often too.

Barbara Brown, Republican Candidate for District Justice, but lost the Primary ($300) ----- Ooooops again. Another mistake on my part. While Ms. Brown did run on both tickets in the Primary, she is a registered Democrat and “supposedly” a very loyal one at that. Barb Brown even went as far as to explain to me that she could never agree with my conservative politics . . . but yet she made significant donations to the campaign of an incumbent Republican (and secretary of the county GOP). I suppose I was more conservative than Mrs. Richardson after all. I say “Hmmmm”.

Contributions from Political Action Commitees representing Financial Institutions

As the County Treasurer, Mrs. Richardson stays “tight” with the banks. So tight, in fact, that she receives regular contributions from the Political Action Committees (because receiving funds directly from a bank is illegal according to campaign finance law).

National City Corp PAC ($100)
First National Bank of PA PAC ($100)

I personally think that financial institutions should be prevented from having a Political Action Committee, but that is an issue for another day.

Expenditures that made me laugh:

There was one campaign expense that made me laugh. Mrs. Richardson’s campaign committee logged an expense for $21.14 on 11/3/2009 labeled “Food for Election Night”. Election night parties are typical. I also threw a party for my friends and family (a.k.a. “volunteers”) on Election Night. Heck, Matt Snyder from The Herald even joined us for a little while when he stopped in for a post-election interview. The party, however, was held at my home and office, and the money that I spent came out of my pocket and wasn’t recorded as “campaign expenses”. It wasn’t an expense of my “campaign”, it was a gift to my friends and family who worked long and hard hours on my behalf as a “person” and not a “candidate”. Based on the $21.14 that Mrs. Richardson spent, I can only guess that her’s wasn’t much of a party.

There was another interesting expense that made me scratch my head. The Steese-Richardson campaign also logged a $450.00 expense on 10/31/2009 for a “bus”. Huh? This is one of those times when I wish that the campaign finance reports provided a little extra information like “what on earth did they need a bus for?”.

In Summary:

When it is all done and over it is pretty clear that when it comes to running a political campaign . . . “Cash is King”. As a general rule, you need to “Go Big or Go Home”, and if you are going to “Go Big” you better plan on doing it with other peoples money. Remember, this was a race for a row office that pays roughly $54,000 per year. Steese-Richardson spent almost $30,000 to keep the job for another four years. Granted, she wasn’t spending HER money, so she got off pretty cheap; but this is not the sort of thing that hard-working taxpayers can afford.

Is there really a chance for honest, hard-working and concerned citizens to run for a political office and win because they have a good message and honest objectives? Or, is the system designed to keep “those kinds” of people out of the process? If you enter into politics, do you need to become a “politician” (a.k.a. “whore”) in order to compete with the other “politicians” (a.k.a. “whores”) that we refer to as “incumbents”? At first glance, that appears to be the case. I, however, prefer to remain more optimistic about it. Back in February I was warned by several friends that “you might need to run twice to win once”. That concept has stuck with me, and I wonder if it could be true. If you simply stick with it and keep coming back for more, will you eventually break down the walls to the “inner circle”? I’m not sure, but maybe time will tell.


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