For the 17 members of Philadelphia City Council, the creeping onset of 2019 signals the start of yet another quadrennial milestone where every legislator is up for re-election.
Some pols spent the past year stockpiling and spreading cash around to key constituencies ahead of likely primary challenges – if they weren't doing so already. For others, well, there’s always tomorrow...right?
That’s the takeaway from a City&State PA and Philly Weekly analysis of Council’s campaign finance statements for 2017. Some Councilmembers are now years into increasingly robust fundraising operations; others are running out of time to build a campaign war chest.
Top earner Kenyatta Johnson once again raked in nearly $275,000 in contributions over the last year with help from fundraising consultancy Rittenhouse Partners; he ended 2017 with nearly half a million cash on hand.
“Kenyatta understands the importance of having a viable campaign bank account,” said veteran political consultant (and frequent donor) Larry Ceisler. “I’m sure that I’m going to get one to two fundraising calls a year from him. He has probably the most professional and streamlined operation out there.”
Others, like Bill Greenlee – who has been dogged by retirement rumors – struggled to crack the five-figure mark.
Ceisler also doled out praise to Al Taubenberger and Helen Gym, each of whom showed substantial year-over-year fundraising increases. Their haul is even more impressive considering that at-large members like them are voted into office through citywide elections. They don’t enjoy the same stability or fundraising advantage as district members who wield power over neighborhood development projects. Yet Gym and Taubenberger’s fundraising totals rivaled those of ostensibly more powerful district council members.
Ceisler said that could be for good reason.
“If you’re Helen, you’re raising money for your reelection because at-large elections are always a crapshoot,” Ceisler said. “If she gets a bad ballot position, if you don’t have same type of turnout, if she has problems because of the Rizzo statue...”
The range of political donors who gave to local pols last year was as diverse and varied as the different personalities on City Council itself.
Allan Domb, a downtown real estate mogul-turned-Councilman, saw more than half his contributions come via roughly 100 larger donations by self-described attorneys, real estate professionals and business owners. Meanwhile, Gym, a longtime progressive activist, listed about 260 donations from small donors, each of whom gave less than $250.
Nearly a third of Council President Darrell Clarke’s contributions came from developers or other real estate interests – stakeholders for Brandywine Realty Trust, Parkway Corporation and affordable housing developers cumulatively gave him nearly $24,000 in 2017. And, of course, in a city with historically powerful unions, nearly every Councilmember got substantial donations from one or more trades group.
Unsurprisingly, bigger fundraisers also tended to be bigger spenders. Mark Squilla and Bobby Henon were Council’s Nos. 2 and 3 earners, respectively, and were also the chamber’s top two spenders. Together, both men shelled out $407,000 last year for everything from pricey consultants to generous donations to neighborhood groups – or almost 20 percent of the total expenditures logged by all 17 Councilmembers.
Conversely, a few, like Johnson and Republican Brian O’Neill, elected to keep their powder dry. Today, each sits atop a war chest well in excess of $400,000.
Ceisler said that this mindset was an indication that O’Neill, the sole GOP district Council member in a heavily Democratic city, and Johnson, who reps a heavily gentrifying area, are hoping to preemptively ward off challengers. Rumor has it that former Council aide Lauren Vidas is already considering a run against Johnson.
“I think both these guys know that they’re heading towards reelection and they’re expecting a stiff challenge,” he said.
However, big spenders like Squilla say no stockpile is large enough to guarantee political security these days.
“It’s the Donald Trump effect,” Squilla says. “We have more people involved and interested in politics, so I think at this point everybody should be expecting a challenger.”
Charge it to the campaign
Councilmembers collectively raised $1.8 million last year – and spent more than two-thirds of that total during the same period.
Much of that money went into typical campaign costs: basic supplies, advertising and promotional materials, pricey political or fundraising consultants. But under state campaign finance law, candidates can justify almost any expense that furthers their reelection chances – only extreme misconduct like paying your opponent to drop out of the race or siphoning campaign funds into another bank account is off limits in practice.
So, some councilmembers also charged their campaigns for a dubious range of goods and services: recording $26,105 in unitemized credit card bills (Bobby Henon); $524 to pay off old parking tickets (Cherelle Parker); $76 in Redbox DVD rentals (David Oh); $1,100 in membership fees for the Union League, AAA, and two platinum credit cards (Brian O’Neill); or $162 for a SiriusXM radio subscription (Al Taubenberger).
“Hey, you gotta listen to the news,” Ceisler joked, of the SiriusXM line item.
Parker also shelled out $700 to hire four drivers to help transport constituents to a fraught community meeting last year during a neighborhood dustup over the opening of a medical marijuana dispensary in her district.
The Councilwoman had taken a public stance against the dispensary, but campaign spokesperson Aren Platt pushed back at the suggestion she had “bused in” residents as backup during a politically complex dispute.
“‘Busing’ has a negative connotation. It implies that these were people who would otherwise not be coming to the hearing,” he said. “Cherelle brought in some folks to help out with event logistics and they helped bring people in from the neighborhood. These were senior citizens with mobility issues, who needed help getting up and down stairs.”
David Thornburgh, director of the political watchdog group Committee of Seventy, said that while not explicitly barred under campaign finance law, these types of activities can still elicit concern from good government groups.
“It feels a little like it crosses some line,” he said. “There should be a campaign effort and a legislative effort that you’re trying to conduct separately.”
In the spring and fall of last year, Parker also spent $2,500 on consultant Steve Masters, a lawyer whose website advertises his expertise in disputing development plans, among other skills.
Platt did not go into detail about that arrangement, citing confidentiality. Nor did he voluntarily disclose the nature of a $4,000 contract with longtime political consultant Marty O’Rourke, described in filings only as a “research” expense during a similar time period. O’Rourke also represents figures like Mayor Jim Kenney and congressional candidate Rich Lazer.
Parker is also one of four Councilmembers who use campaign funds to subsidize satellite offices in their home districts. The city allows pols to use their municipal office allowance to set up such offices further afield, many of which double as de facto campaign offices come election season.
But some councilmembers like to spend a little extra out of their campaign to cover rent, utilities and other expenses.
Parker, for example, spent $300 on office supplies and $400 to move the office to a new location in 2017. Henon spent $1,944 to replace windows that he said were vandalized at his satellite office last year. Although he declined to discuss the matter, O’Neill holds a record four satellite offices in his remote Northeast Philly district, a constellation propped up with donated money.
Councilman Curtis Jones, who funds one of his Northwest district offices through his campaign account, explains that the arrangement helps keep his legislative and campaign interests separate.
“Anybody on my public payroll doesn’t do my politics,” Jones said.
A powerful hunger
When it comes to shoring up goodwill ahead of a big election, no ticket is more trusted than the meal ticket. As Albert Einstein famously said: “An empty stomach is not a good political advisor.”
While many Councilmembers throw annual fundraisers and catered events to raise money, only a few regularly whip out their campaign cards to wine and dine their political circles around town – But the ones who do aren’t shy about picking up a big tab.
The hungriest pol was, by far, was Mark Squilla, who picked up more than $8,500 in restaurant tabs. Although he dined everywhere from South Philly’s swank Le Virtu to Panera Bread, the Courtyard by Marriott was far and away his favorite lunch spot – the Councilman logged 19 outings to the hotel in 2017.
“Hey, it’s right across from City Hall,” Squilla said when asked about his frequent hotel noshing.
Runner-up was Brian O’Neill, who dished out $5,751 in dining receipts for everything from Italian dinners to hibachi outings. He also apparently took his campaigning on the road last year, registering numerous restaurant expenses down the Jersey shore and even one in Scottsdale, Arizona. (O’Neill did not return requests for comment.)
“If these are campaign dollars and the law permits that use of campaign dollars, it’s hard to see what the issue is if donors aren’t perturbed,” said Thornburgh. “But it’s also a question of whether this is the highest and best use of those dollars to get that person elected.”
The art of political charity
Another perk of the campaign account? It doubles as an occasional charity fund, courtesy of campaign contributors.
For example, Parker spent about $1,000 on what her campaign described as payments to support increased liability insurance for a food bank in her district – the group had seen premiums soar after a slip-and-fall case. Henon kicked in $2,278 to cover rental payments for a community arts center in his district.
“I raise and spend funds to advance programs and projects that help people, organizations and communities thrive – and have every year since I was elected,” Henon said. “Just because it’s not an election year doesn’t mean that I am less committed to the work I am doing.”
But Squilla spread the love around his district more aggressively than any of his peers.
The two-term lawmaker doled out 15 percent of his $225,838 contribution haul on various civic organizations and business groups in his district – about $32,000 in community donations and another $2,800 in charitable sponsorships.
In his former role as a community activist, Squilla says, he regularly asked elected officials for donations. “It’s easier to support somebody financially then it is to give them time to go to the events,” he added. “But I try to do both.”
But some politicos say that these instances of Councilmember-as-district-don are, like much of Philly politics, a relic of the city’s provincial past.
“Nothing wrong with keeping your name out there...But he’s like the United Way,” Ceisler said of Squilla’s largess. “It’s not a waste of money, but it’s an old-fashioned way of doing things. We’re apparently a town where the City Hall can’t do the things it used to do and there’s a lack of philanthropy in these neighborhoods, so politicians get involved.”
Squilla isn’t the only Daddy Warbucks in the chamber, though. Councilmembers collectively donated tens of thousands to support local churches, businesses, youth sports teams and other virtuous civic causes.
Charity is, well, charity – but it’s worth noting that many Council members hope that the generosity doesn’t go unnoticed.
Jones, a frequent benefactor with his campaign funds, recently sent some Philly youth in his district to see the critically acclaimed Black Panther in theaters – a good deed, he acknowledged, but not one without political weight.
“To me, that’s a legitimate campaign expense, because every one of those juveniles has a mother and father, and many of them vote, so that’s important to me,” he told a reporter. “It’s good to do philanthropic things, but it also has some political advantage.”