In mayor's race, money talks -- but what does it say?



As I've said here earlier, we're still at that very early stage of the 2013 mayoral race, where the question isn't "Which of these guys is best equipped to run the city?" but "which of these guys is best equipped to run a campaign?" We have two challengers, City Councilor Bill Peduto and City Controller Michael Lamb, trying to oust incumbent Luke Ravenstahl. And because ousting an incumbent is never easy, a key early question is whether the challengers have the resources to put up a decent fight. So perhaps it's inevitable that the campaign's first big fight may involve allegations of improper fundraising.

The campaigns will release detailed 2012 financial reports on Jan. 31, but we're already getting a picture of the landscape. In a financial-disclosure form filed earlier this week, Ravenstahl revealed that his campaign had $781,500 on hand. Peduto's form says nothing about his campaign cash, because the forms only track financial information related to "your most recent ... elections" and Peduto shut down the committee he'd previously used to run for council. (We'll explain why that's important in a minute.) But Peduto has launched a new committee to finance his mayoral run, and he's boasting of having raised nearly $330,000 in just the last three months. Assuming those numbers are accurate -- again, we'll know more on Jan. 31 -- it would seem that Ravenstahl has a predictably strong head start, while Peduto has made a respectable beginning.

The real question here, though, concerns Lamb. He's got more than a quarter-million dollars in a bank account -- but he may get sued if he uses it.

Lamb's own financial-disclosure form reports having just under $236,800 in his campaign's bank account. That would also seem like a respectable total, except ...

"If he tries to use that money," Peduto warns, "we'll either take him to court or, more likely, find a third party who supports good government to raise a challenge."

Here's what the argument is about. The city's 2009 campaign-finance reform law includes the following provision:

A candidate for [city office] shall have no more than one (1) political committee and one (1) checking account for the ... Office being sought, into which all contributions for such office shall be made, and out of which all expenditures for that office shall be made. If the candidate ... maintains other political or non-political accounts for which contributions are solicited, such funds collected in these accounts shall not be used for the purpose of influencing the outcome of a covered election in excess of the limits imposed on other Political Committees.

Peduto -- who was a principal architect of the law and cites it as proof of his reformist credentials -- says that provision prevents Lamb's mayoral campaign from tapping money he raised as a controller.

Why? Lamb's $236,800 was raised prior to the launch of his mayoral campaign this week. And as Peduto notes, in the campaign-finance paperwork Lamb has previously filed, in the space marked "name of office sought by candidate" it says "Pittsburgh City Controller." (That is true in Lamb's 2011 annual report -- the most recent one on file. I'd be surprised if it's true of the report he'll file at the end of January, however.)

"You can’t say, 'Come to my fundraiser for city controller,' and then say, 'Oops, I'm running for mayor,' and use the contributions for that," Peduto says. That's why, Peduto says, he closed out his own city council committee last fall. (That committee, by the way, had a small deficit, which he settled out of his own pocket.)

Peduto says the law allows candidates to swap up to $8,000 from one committee to another -- the same limit imposed on any donation from an outside committee. Beyond that, Peduto says, Lamb has to launch his mayoral bid from scratch.

As you might expect, Lamb disagrees with Peduto's interpretation, calling the argument a "red herring." Yes, the ordinance says candidates "shall have no more than one ... political committee" for the office being sought. But Lamb has no more than one political committee. OK, it's the same committee he used for controller, but so what? Both city controller and mayor are "citywide offices," which are governed by the same campaign-contribution limits. And while the ordinance says you get one committee per office sought ... it doesn't say the reverse -- that you get one office sought per committee. If anything, Lamb says, the ordinance seems to frown on opening a second account when you already have one open.

"I've had lawyers look this up and down," he says, "and they said [using the same committee] was the best way to do this. Because it's totally unclear as to what can be done with having multiple committees."

What's more, Lamb says, if you accept Peduto's read of the law, than there is only person who is allowed to tap money raised during previous campaigns: the incumbent. Given that campaign-contribution limits are supposed to help level the playing field, Lamb says, "I'm not sure how you hamstring all the other candidates, when you have an incumbent who has built up that kind of advantage."

This isn't the first time that the campaign-finance ordinance's meaning has been hotly debated. And for Lamb, the fact that there have been such sharply differing interpretations of the ordinance proves "The construction of this is horrible" -- a not-so-implicit rebuke of Peduto.

But Peduto suspects Lamb is just trying to grab the money he raised as a controller because people aren't supporting his bid for mayor. "Just because he can't raise money doesn't mean he gets to break the law," Peduto says.

I've voiced suspicions that Lamb may have the hardest time raising funds -- though again, we won't really know until the end of the month. But in answer to the question asked at the outset here, we do appear to have two challengers willing to put up a fight. It's just that right now, it looks like their first fight may be with each other.

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