by Chris Potter
Today was the deadline for candidates to file their year-end reports on their 2012 political activity. I'll give the topline numbers below, and then offer a few thoughts afterward. And it might be worth sticking with me: Just behind these numbers are some potentially sticky problems which could conceivably invite a lawsuit or two, force candidates to return money, and potentially blow up the city's fledgling campaign-finance law entirely.
Mayor Luke Ravenstahl raised $497,950 last year, and spent $94,000 of it. With money he already had on hand in previous years, he was sitting on $748,589 at year's end. More than the other candidates, Ravenstahl's support came in the form of large donations: Nearly 98 cents of every dollar he took in came in donations of more than $250. At least five political committees gave him $8,000 each -- the maximum allowed under city rules. His rivals, by contrast, had a total of one such donation. The mayor's single biggest supporter appears to be state Sen. Jim Ferlo, whose gave $2,000 of his own money ... and $8,000 donated from his own political committee. (Ravenstahl also submitted a report covering January activity -- something candidates do to look especially bad-ass -- which showed him closing on $1 million in cash. But I'm leaving it out here so as to have an apples-to-apples comparison.)
City Councilor Bill Peduto raised $326,721 in contributions, but spent $68,729 of it, leaving him $260,942 at the start of the year. As with Ravenstahl, Peduto's largest source of support was contributions of more than $250 from individuals, but about 15 cents of every dollar he raised came in amounts of less than $250. Peduto also took in almost $11,000 in contributions of less than $50 -- contributions that can serve as a rough gauge of grassroots support. Peduto's biggest backer -- the source of his only $8,000 political contribution -- came from County Executive Rich Fitzgerald. But you probably guessed that.
City controller Michael Lamb, meanwhile, raised $208,653, and spent $58,594. When you add in the $62,000 he already had on hand at the start of 2012, he was left with just over $212,000. Lamb had nearly as many $50-or-less contributions as Peduto -- $8,953 worth -- and overall, about 11 percent of his contributions came in donations of less than $250. Lamb's financial picture is the murkiest of the three, for reasons discussed below.
Those are the topline numbers. Here are some of the stories behind them.
Ravenstahl is still a juggernaut. Everyone knew that Ravenstahl, as the incumbent, would have a big head start coming into the race. He started 2012 with just over $342,000 in the bank. So when he turned in a financial disclosure form two weeks ago showing he had $781,000 in the bank, Peduto's campaign saw an opportunity. Team Peduto asserted that, while their candidate had raised $330,000 in just the last couple months of the year, Ravenstahl had "managed to add only $440k to his campaign coffers after an entire year of fundraising." Yeah, not so much. Ravenstahl's finance report shows that out of the $497,600 he raised in itemized contributions, all but $2,750 came in after mid-November. So Ravenstahl not only began the year with a clear advantage; he ended it by outpacing Peduto.
On the other hand ... as noted above, Ravenstahl has taken several $8,000 contributions from PACs. He's also taken at least 5 contributions of $4,000 from individual people -- the maximum allowed from one person. (The records also show one $5,000 donation -- a portion of which may have to be given back.) That raises a couple of concerns. First, remember these were just contributions made in the past couple months. If any of these folks have previously given to Ravenstahl in this election cycle -- i.e. since he last ran for office back in 2009 -- you can bet one or both of his rivals will call on him to return some of the excess amount contributed. ADDED (10: 15 a.m., Feb.1) Ravenstahl has already refunded some contributions in excess of the $8,000 and $4,000 limit, though as far as I can tell, the $5,000 donation I mentioned above -- a Dec. 2 contribution from financial adviser David Malone -- is not among them. This seems more an oversight than anything else; I don't think Ravenstahl's campaign needs the extra $1,000.)
And then there's the challenge all candidates face when donations are capped: Their most loyal supporters are going to be the ones who "max out" first. Ravenstahl can't tap some of these guys again. (In fact, the problem is actually more pressing than I've just suggested. Those dollar limits are for the entire campaign -- both the May primary and the general election in November. Candidates are only allowed to spend HALF that maximum for the primary, which realistically is when the election is decided. Really, a $4,000 gift from a committee, and a $2,000 contribution from an individual, is as much as they can use until May -- after which point it will cease to make a difference.) Lamb and especially Peduto will also have this problem, of course, although my anecdotal look at the numbers suggests it won't be such an issue for them. Then again, having close to a million bucks by Jan. 31? That's the kind of headache Lamb and Peduto probably wouldn't mind having.
Lamb's numbers come with some asterisks. There are two oddities in Lamb's reports. First off, as noted above, Lamb's campaign includes money raised in 2011. That was long before he announced plans to run for mayor, and in fact his 2011 reports identified him as a candidate for controller. That 2011 money -- and for that matter, the money he's raised since -- has already been a source of animosity with Peduto, who basically holds that Lamb should have set up a "Lamb for Mayor" account separate from his fundraising as controller. (As Peduto reads the law, Lamb can transfer money from one PAC to another, but only in amounts of up to $8,000, tops, not the $60-plus thousand here.) I'd say there is a high potential for legal action here.
The other thing is that Lamb's report shows that his campaign is financed with a $50,000 loan Lamb made from his own pocket. (Lamb's 2011 annual report shows that his campaign owed him $15,000, suggesting he lent it another $35,000 in the past 12 months.) Now under the campaign-finance rules, a candidate can finance his campaign out of his own pocket, but there's a bit of a wrinkle here. According to the ordinance, contribution limits cease to apply if any candidate should "contribute personal resources in excess fifty thousand dollars," without first publicly disclosing an intention to do so. (If the candidate does disclose in advance, campaign finance limits for other candidates are doubled.) Assuming that loaning a campaign money counts as "contribut[ing] resources" to it, then Lamb could conceivably loan himself 1 more dollar, and singlehandedly blow up these limits entirely. (One positive result of that: shorter blog posts.)
Peduto faces his own challenges. Among Peduto's larger gifts is $2,000 from William F. Benter, who owns a medical-transcription service. But I'll bet Benter would have been willing to do a lot more: Back in 2007, before the limits were in place, he gave Peduto $50,000. No doubt another such gift would make life a lot easier, and replacing it won't be easy. Peduto has been able to garner a few thousand dollars in union money, and he's got $4,000 from the campaign of state Rep. Ed Gainey (who got help from some of Peduto's political lieutenants last year). He's getting support from some stalwarts like Democratic fixture Dan Booker too. While he's got a lot of ground to make up with Ravenstahl, being well into six-digits so quickly is a credible showing. But he's still drawing heavily from the creative class. Among his biggest backers are the actor David Conrad ($2,000) and filmmaker Henry John Simonds ($2,000), along with scattered giving from museum folks and the professoriate. (In the interests of full disclosure, one of his $2,000 contributors, Robert Raczka, regularly contributes art reviews to City Paper. I can tell you he didn't get that kind of money writing for us.) There are plenty of signs that Peduto isn't willing to just be mayor of the East End, and he's tailoring his campaign accordingly. But it ain't like he's left it behind, either.