In 2014, the state doubled the contribution cap for municipal campaigns. You’ll never guess what happened next

MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
Minneapolis mayor candidates for 2017, left to right: Aswar Rahman, Al Flowers, Mayor Betsy Hodges, Council Member Jacob Frey, Nekima Levy-Pounds, Tom Hoch and State Rep. Raymond Dehn.

They say nature abhors a vacuum, and that is perhaps nowhere more true than in the world of campaign finance.

Take the Minneapolis mayor’s race. Back in 2014, the state legislature upped campaign contribution limits, including an increase from $500 per individual to $1,000 per individual in a mayor’s race in a city the size of Minneapolis (they were also doubled in city council races, from $300 to $600). As of last week’s reports, it’s clear that donors have stepped in to fill these new, higher limits.

In fact, in the  Jan. 1 through July 25 period covered by the reports, more than 350 individuals or couples (who may donate up to $2,000) donating to mayoral campaigns had already hit the campaign contribution cap.

Overall, that has led to a lot more cash in the race. So far this year, filings from nine candidates report nearly $851,000 raised and $834,000 spent, compared to $725,000 raised and $704,000 spent in 11 candidates' filings in 2013. That’s in spite of a filing deadline for this report that’s a month earlier this year.

Itemized contributions and expenditures, 2013 and 2017
So far this year, candidates have raised and spent more than they did in the corresponding reports in 2013, the deadline for which was a month later. Totaled data for Nekima Levy-Pounds' campaign was not available.
Source: Hennepin County Elections

(Not included in this analysis are totaled contributions and expenditures for Nekima Levy-Pounds’ campaign, which were missing from the form filed with the county. Her campaign treasurer did not provide the numbers before our deadline.)

More than $220,000 of that fundraising is due to donors giving over and above what they would have been able to raise in 2013 due to the increased individual contribution limits.

The intent of raising the cap on individual contributions was that it would help candidates compete with outside money groups that can spend unlimited amounts of money in races.

"We're getting to a point where outside interest groups and their agendas are driving our political campaigns rather than candidates and their conversations with voters," then-DFL Rep. Ryan Winkler, who authored the bill, told Minnesota Public Radio, in support of raising campaign contribution limits in 2013. As part of the 2014 legislation, local governments were also required to post campaign finance reports online for public viewing.

Campaign spending

So what are candidates doing with all this money?

Making payroll for campaign staffers, for one. That tends to make up a large share of expenses for campaigns that hire staff.

So far, only Tom Hoch, founder and former president of the Hennepin Theatre Trust, has sprung for local market TV ads. He spent nearly $32,000 on ads with KARE, KSTP and WCCO, and more than $22,000 on TV production, his campaign finance disclosure forms show. Hoch also paid Playbill about $1,600 and Lavender $15,000 for advertising. Hoch has loaned his campaign more than $226,000.

Incumbent Mayor Betsy Hodges spent more than $14,000 on finance consulting, $10,500 on online consulting, $750 on web design and about $2,800 on printing.

Frey spent about $28,500 on printing and mailing services, $8,300 on t-shirts, $46,400 on consulting, $13,500 on e-mail services, $740 on Facebook. He spent $400 on radio ads on AM 950.

Ray Dehn, who represents Minneapolis in the Minnesota House of Representatives, spent more than $11,500 on strategists and consultants, $5,500 on printing and $1,146 on a communications consultant.

Aswar Rahman, a filmmaker, spent $1,003 to buy a campaign truck, about $800 to repair it and $1,900 to trick it out with a vinyl wrap and posters. He spent about $390 on t-shirts and $32 on glow sticks.

photo of a truck featuring an advertisement for aswar rahman for mayor
MinnPost photo by Greta Kaul
Rahman’s campaign truck.

Nekima Levy-Pounds, a lawyer and the former head of the Minneapolis NAACP, spent $2,100 on Facebook, $2,000 on consulting, $1,000 on a website and lots of cash on event supplies.

Al Flowers, a community organizer, spent $1,500 on literature, stickers, buttons and banners.

Captain Jack Sparrow spent about $2o on campaign cards and $50 on bus and rail fare.

How much does it matter?

Don’t read too much into the campaign cash horse race. It’s 88 days to election day, and these campaigns have only begun to heat up.

Plus, there’s the big question of how much money campaigns raise really matters. If 2013 has any lessons to teach, maybe it’s not the most important thing, especially in a ranked-choice voting world, where one winning strategy is to be well-liked enough (possibly by not attacking opponents) when election day rolls around to be selected as a second or third-round pick.

Leading up to the 2013 election, Mark Andrew and Dan Cohen led Betsy Hodges in spending (Andrew’s money came mostly from contributions; Cohen’s was mostly self-loaned). Yet on election night, Hodges got 37 percent of first-choice votes, Andrew got 25 percent and Cohen got 2 percent. Ultimately, Hodges won on the final round of voting with 49 percent, while Andrew came in second with 31 percent.

Here are the campaign finance totals for the 10 candidates for Minneapolis mayor:

Itemized contributionsLoansItemized expendituresCash on hand
Jacob Frey359,878.7510,000.00244,157.07293,306.88
Tom Hoch215,738.37226,344.24296,508.63145,573.98
Betsy Hodges204,137.6675,500.00241,339.5557,901.12
Ray Dehn54,202.10500.0038,248.2219,766.07
Nekima Levy-PoundsNot Available0Not Available4,095.89
Aswar Rahman13,625.0009,775.253,849.75
Al Flowers2,447.003,124.683,791.871,749.86
David Rosenfeld410.350180.37229.98
Bob “Again” Carney*20.00020.000
Captain Jack Sparrow100.000100.000
*Bob “Again” Carney suspended his campaign for mayor on August 1.

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