If you’re running for office in the City of Philadelphia, being a millionaire may be helpful on some level. But it doesn’t guarantee anything.
By Denise Clay-Murray
When it comes to the 2023 races for mayor and City Council, the next couple of months are going to be filled with some very important deadlines.
On Feb. 14, the candidates are going to want some Valentine’s Day love in the form of signatures on their nominating petitions.
On March 7, those petitions must be turned in.
But on Jan. 31, candidates had to turn in their campaign finance forms, which will let you know the financial health of their campaigns. And the results showed that some of them, most notably former City Councilmember Allan Domb, are willing to put their money where their mouths are.
As of Dec. 31, 2022, Domb had the most money among the Democratic candidates for mayor with $5,040,795.58. Among his challengers, his former Council colleague Helen Gym was next with $1,201,314.97. Former Controller Rebecca Rhynhart was the only other candidate with $1 million on hand. Former Councilmembers Maria Quinones Sanchez had $501,639.03, while former Councilmembers Derek Green, and Cherelle Parker and businessman Jeff Brown had less than $500,000 on hand.
State Rep. Amen Brown had less than $5,000 cash on hand with $3,245.27 in his campaign war chest. Former Lt. Gov. Mike Stack, who has expressed an intention to join the mayor’s race, had not done so during this reporting cycle.
Because Domb and Brown loaned themselves a significant chunk of their campaign war chests, the city’s Doubling Rule — also known as the “Millionaire’s Exemption” — has kicked in.
The idea behind the provision is to give candidates who can’t loan themselves large sums of money a fighting chance to stay competitive in political races by allowing them to exceed the campaign contribution limits of $3,100 for individual donors and $12,600 for political action committees, partnerships, and sole proprietorships, said Shane Creamer, executive director of the city’s Board of Ethics.
“It’s a provision in the campaign finance law, under the contribution limits section, where if a candidate contributes $250,000, or more of his or her own resources to their own campaign, the limits for that race, double for all candidates and remain doubled whether that candidate drops out or loses the primary,” Creamer said. “The reason for the doubling provision is to sort of balance out the limitations that candidates face with the contribution limits when they’re running against someone who is wealthy and has their own resources to self-fund their campaign, and therefore, doesn’t face the same consequences of the contribution limits that the other candidates do.”
While the “Millionaires Exemption” has always been a part of the City’s campaign finance law, it was rarely utilized before 2006, when insurance executive Tom Knox threw his hat in the mayoral campaign ring, Creamer said. Now, it’s a constant presence in the municipal election cycle, most recently during Domb’s first run for City Council.
To keep donors to the candidates who are now allowed to double their contributions from going over the new limit, the Board of Ethics monitors them for excess giving, Creamer said. Someone who may have contributed to a given campaign more than once might have gone over the line without meaning to, he said.
“That’s usually how excess contributions happen, particularly with political committees,” he said. “They forgot that they gave a contribution earlier in the year and then they give again. And when you add it all up, they sometimes get over the line.”
But while the doubling provision might help the candidates themselves remain competitive within the campaign structure, it doesn’t necessarily help those whose don’t have the kind of money that would allow them to contribute anywhere from $6,200 to $25,200 toward the candidate of their choice, said Patrick Christmas, chief policy officer for the Committee of Seventy, a good government group that has fought for campaign finance limits. In other words, while the “Millionaires Exemption” levels the playing field for the candidates running, it doesn’t necessarily make the city’s democracy more participatory for its residents, Christmas said.
“It’s supposed to allow the other candidates a better chance to fundraise and level the playing field a bit,” he said. “But of course, it’s an imperfect rule for an imperfect system.”
What makes it imperfect is that while it technically doesn’t allow the loans to themselves of independently wealthy candidates to have the last word, the ability to double a political contribution, or even to make one, is restricted to a few people, especially in the poorest big city in America, Christmas said.
And while one wealthy donor can make a splash, a group of them forming a Super PAC can go far beyond that, he said.
“That’s an issue,” Christmas said. “And then we have the Super PACs running around, and they can collect much money as they want, with checks much, much bigger than four figures, five, or potentially six figures. So, you know, real people, real voters, who could chip in, you know, $25 bucks, or maybe $100 bucks, they’re just not as prominent of a feature in the campaign finance landscape as they should be. It’s not easy to fix, but it’s an underlying problem.”
That said, no amount of money can hide a candidate’s flaws, Christmas said.
“A lot of money doesn’t necessarily buy an election,” he said. “And we’ve certainly seen over and over again, where the candidate with the biggest war chest doesn’t win because there are so many other factors in elections.”
Although money may not be able to buy the hearts and minds of the electorate, it can help you put together a good campaign apparatus, something that will be really important during the petition process.
Ensuring petitions have the proper amount of signatures, that all of the signatures are valid, and that all of them are registered Philadelphia voters — or in the case of the District council races, voters that live in that district — requires an experienced campaign staff.
Especially when, as in the case of the City Council At-Large candidates, you’re going up against at least 15 other people for the right to run for seven seats, many of which are held by incumbents.
Over the last two election cycles, incumbents in District Council races have seen more competition and this cycle is no different. As of press time, almost every incumbent councilmember faces a challenger.
Second district Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson faces two challengers. Aaron Humphrey, an entrepreneur and community activist, and Boogie Rose, a community activist. Third district Councilmember Jamie Gauthier faces a challenge from Jabari Jones, founder and president of the West Philadelphia Corridor Collaborative, Fourth District Councilmember Curtis Jones Jr. faces a challenge Darrel Smith Jr., director of community engagement and prevention/intervention for Turning Points for Children and Eighth District Councilmember Cindy Bass is being challenged by Seth Anderson-Oberman, an organizer for SEIU Healthcare.
Several of the incumbents are being challenged by several people. Newly elected Councilmember Quetcy Lozada is being challenged by educator and social worker Andrés Celin, community organizer Moe Santana, and her special election opponent, Republican James Whitehead.
Newly elected Councilmember Anthony Phillips is being challenged by Arcadia University professor Janay Hawthorne, and administrator and construction manager Yvette Young.
Tenth district Councilmember Brian O’Neill is being challenged by fellow Republican Roman Zhukov, president of NE Connected and Democrat Gary Masino, president and business manager Local 19 of the Sheet Metal Workers Union.
Even Council President Darrell Clarke is facing a challenge. He’s being challenged by Jon Hankins, a state Democratic Committee member, entrepreneur, and pastor.
As of press time, 24 people — 19 Democrats, three Republicans and two members of the Working Families Party — are vying for the five majority and two minority party seats for Council At-Large.
The incumbents are Democrats Jim Harrity, Katherine Gilmore Richardson and Isaiah Thomas and Working Families Party’s Kendra Brooks. Incumbent Democratic Councilmember Sharon Vaughn is not running for reelection, and it is rumored that Republican City Councilmember David Oh will be throwing his hat into the mayoral race.
Republicans Jim Hasher, a realtor, Drew Murray, a regional sales manager and Sam Oropeza, a real estate agent and founder of Rescuing Streets through Cleanups, will be vying with pastor and community organizer Nicolas O’Rourke of the Working Families Party for one of the minority party slots in the May primary.
The following Democrats are also running: Pennsylvania NOW President Nina Ahmad; Jalon Alexander, a business development manager for Makpar, an IT contractor for the federal government; Community activist and former executive director of Juntos Erika Almirón, Luz Colon, executive director of the Pennsylvania Commission on Latino Affairs; Community organizers Abu Edwards, activist, and retired educator Ogbonna “Paul” Hagins; “Ya Fav Trashman” Terrill Haigler; Job Itzkowitz, executive director of the Old City District; John B. Kelly, a consultant on alternative energy projects; Rue Landau, former executive director of the Philadelphia’s Commission on Human Relations; Amanda McIllmurray, former political director for Reclaim Philadelphia; Matthew Modzelewski, quality complaint coordinator at Independence Blue Cross; Daniel Orsino, a housing counselor for Congreso; educator and small business owner Michelle Prettyman; Eryn Santamoor, former chief of staff for Councilmember Allan Domb and Donovan West, former president and CEO of the African American Chamber of Commerce.
The Pennsylvania primary election will take place on Tuesday, May 16.
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