CHAPEL HILL NEWS Article February 12, 2003
Cost of race takes big
All but three contributors in 2001 race were white, according to Democracy South report.
By Kirk Ross, Staff Writer
CHAPEL HILL — The cost of campaigning for the job of Mayor of Chapel Hill has nearly quadrupled since 1995, according to a new report from Democracy North Carolina.
The report, compiled by Democracy North Carolina researcher Peter Walz, tracked campaign contributions from 1995 to 2001. Walz said the report found a steady rise in the cost of campaigns and a highly focused core of contributors giving in each race.
According to the report, the cost of running has grown from an average of $6,619 per candidate in 1995, when incumbent Mayor Rosemary Waldorf won re-election against Kevin Foy to $25,459 per candidate in the 2001 race between former council member Lee Pavao and Foy, who was elected mayor.
In 1999, the average spent by Waldorf and challenger Susan Franklin was $12,530.
The report chides Foy for listing fewer of his contributors’ occupations than Pavao, but said both candidates’ information could have been more complete. Walz said that while the town should be commended for its rules that limit donations from any individual to $400 and required reporting anything over $20. But he says there are gaps that can confuse voters.
“When there are so few employers listed, it makes it very difficult for voters to fully know who’s getting from whom,” Walz said.
Foy said that makes sense for larger, statewide races, but probably isn’t as big a deal in local races.
“The point of that provision is so that people would know not just the names, but the general interest of the contributors,” he said. “In a small community like ours, it seems to me that we probably aren’t hurt by giving people a lot of leeway to describe who they are,” he said. “In a statewide race it’s more important because you can have someone giving significant amounts of money and no one knows who they are.”
Pavao said that while he supports the reporting requirements, they are difficult and time consuming to keep up with. He said the fact that donors giving more than $20 had to be named may have cost him.
“Some people who had given in the past elected not to because they didn’t want the notoriety,” he said.
While the cost of the 2001 race may have swamped previous campaigns, both Foy and Pavao said the numbers should be kept in perspective.
The mayor’s race in Cary, Foy said, cost nearly 10 times as much even though the town is only twice as big as Chapel Hill.
Pavao said that while he agreed that campaigns have become too expensive, he based his estimate of the cost he’d need to run on former Mayor Ken Broun’s race in 1991, which cost close to $19,000.
Among the report’s other findings about the 2001 race:
n 84 percent of the donations in both Foy and Pavo’s race came in the form of larger donations of $100 or more.
n One of three major donations to Pavao’s unsuccessful run in 2001 came from members of the real estate, builder or development sectors.
n Only three of 217 identified contributors — 1.4 percent of the total — were African-American, and all three donated to Pavao.
n 78 percent of Foy’s contributors and 54 percent of Pavao’s were Democrats.
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Chapel Hill News Editorial Sunday, February 16, 2003
Chapel Hill has a campaign-spending law that's better than most.
The law limits contributions to $200 per individual in an election, and it requires disclosure of any donors who give more than $20. That's much more restrictive than state law, which "limits" contributions to $4,000 and has a $100 threshold for disclosing contributors' names.
But even with the tighter restrictions, spending in the last Chapel Hill mayor's race was double the amount from the previous mayoral race in 1999 and more than triple the amount spent in 1995. Democracy North Carolina, the Carrboro-based public interest group, released a report last week calling the trend "troubling" and urging public financing of campaigns in Chapel Hill.
In the 2001 mayoral election, Kevin Foy beat Lee Pavao, 57 percent to 39 percent. They each spent more than $25,000 on the election, for a total of $51,000, or $6 per vote.
The Democracy North Carolina study made several troubling findings about that election:
-- Most of the money - $43,100 - came from 247 people who gave $100 or more. Put another way, 84 percent of the spending came from less than one half of 1 percent of the population.
-- More than a third of Pavao's major donations came from people connected to the development industry.
-- Foy did not disclose the occupations of most of his large donors. Pavao did, although the descriptions often were vague.
-- Each candidate ended up digging into his own pocket to finance the campaign - Foy $9,800 and Pavao $4,354.
As Democracy North Carolina points out, those kinds of entry fees put the mayor's race out of the spending range of many ordinary citizens. They also subject candidates, when they are elected, to undue pressure from their contributors.
The report doesn't address a key question: Why have campaign costs escalated so much in recent years? Chapel Hill is not a television market, but the costs can be attributed to increasing sophistication of campaigns. Both candidates spent heavily on direct mail - which entails hefty printing and postal expenses - and Foy also employed a paid campaign consultant and polling in his campaign.
Unfortunately, the lesson from the election is that such expensive tactics work, and they thus will become the norm in future elections.
Unless, that is, the town does something to short-circuit the spending cycle. Democracy North Carolina offers a good alternative. The organization is proposing for Chapel Hill a "voter-owned elections" program that would give candidates public funding in exchange for accepting spending limits.
The proposed limits would be $10,000 for the mayor's race and $5,000 for a town council seat. To qualify, candidates would have to raise small donations of $5 to $10 from a minimum number of contributors - 200 for mayoral candidates, 100 for council.
The program would be voluntary, and non-participating candidates would be free to spend as much as they want, within the existing laws.
We think this model, in some form, is a good idea. It would instantly curtail campaign spending, level the playing field for all candidates, lower entry barriers for the non-wealthy and, most important, eliminate influence of special interest groups. There will be objections to the notion of using taxpayer money to fund campaigns - the 2001 election would have cost about $80,000, Democracy North Carolina figures - but that cost is more than offset by the benefits in terms of clean campaigns and better candidates.
Chapel Hill prides itself in being on the cutting edge of progressive government. There is no better place to start than with campaign finance reform.