Philadelphia’s Dollar-Store Election

It's suddenly grown a whole lot cheaper to win the mayor's seat.

"Do you stock media consultants?"

“Do you stock media consultants?” Ken Wolter /

Can anybody spare a dime? Because Philadelphia’s mayoral candidates are broke.

In a series of underwhelming filings Monday, the mayoral campaign committees reported raising remarkably paltry sums in 2014, a major break with the big sums posted in past competitive mayoral primaries.

Anthony H. Williams is the king of the paupers. His mayoral committee raised about $554,000 last year (his state senate committee raised cash too, though; more on that below). Next up was Ken Trujillo, who has since bailed on the race. Trujillo cashed $368,000 in checks. Lynne Abraham tallied just $265,000. Jim Kenney, who only recently decided to run for mayor, raised $236,000 through his city council committee.

If any of these candidates, Williams included, had posted such meager fundraising totals in past mayoral primaries, they would have been laughed out of the race. John Street, operating in the days before contribution limits, collected $1.3 million and was doubled up by rival Marty Weinberg, who snagged a mind-boggling $2.6 million.

Campaign contribution limits were in place in the 2007 primary (though there were higher then they are this cycle) and Michael Nutter still dialed and schmoozed his way to $1.2 million in the year before the primary. Wait, actually, that’s amazing: Nutter raised just about $300,000 less on his own in 2006 than the entire mayoral field did in 2014.

The 2015 candidates’ cash position is even worse. At the end of 2006, the self-funded Tom Knox was sitting on $5.5 million. Kenney, by comparison, had just $77,000 in the bank; less than Nelson Diaz, with $79,000. Williams, with $426,000 as 2014 ended, is comparatively strong, but he’s in no position to buy this race either.

Abraham limped into 2015 with just $196,000 on hand, but her campaign—in a clear attempt to prove Abraham’s viability—filed an extra report showing that she raised $291,680 this January, leaving her with $424,677 as February began. It’s not clear how much the other candidates raised in January, as the campaigns were only required to report contributions made through December.

What about Doug Oliver and Milton Street? Oliver’s exploratory committee collected a cool $1,470 (his campaign committee wasn’t formed until early 2015). Street hadn’t filed as of 9:30 Monday night, so we’ll mark him down for zero.

So what gives? Why is this turning into a Dollar Store election?

  • The city’s campaign contribution limits ($2,900 for individuals, $11,500 for PACs) are working really, really well. Some would argue too well. In the 1999 primary, donors could write checks as big as their bank accounts could manage. Six figure donations were shockingly common. That changed in 2007, when contribution limits were in effect, but Tom Knox’s donations to his own campaign triggered the “millionaire’s exemption.” That doubled the limits for 2007 mayoral candidates, making it easier to raise money in chunks.
  • Many of the candidates got a late start asking for cash. Except for Tony Williams, Trujillo and Terry Gillen (who dropped out of the race in December citing fundraising problems), the candidates in this field got into the race late. Kenney won’t formally launch his campaign until Thursday, and Oliver and Street will officially announce later still.
  • City Council President Darrell Clarke’s indecision almost certainly kept a lot of money on the sidelines during 2014. Deep-pocketed PACs and individual donors who did not want to cross Clarke waited for him to make a call, which he didn’t do until 2014 was over. Oh yeah, Clarke’s 2014 cash on hand total? $501,128. Yeah, the council president has more money to throw around than any of the mayoral candidates.
  • It seems some political donors just have other priorities this cycle: helping the bid to lure the Democratic National Convention to Philadelphia, perhaps, or working to get some new blood on City Council.
  • Or maybe donors aren’t so wild about these candidates. There’s been a lot of grousing among voters about their options this cycle. Why would regular campaign contributors feel any different?

Whatever the cause or causes of this fundraising malaise, it seems sure to shape the race in interesting ways. Perhaps most critically, these tepid totals will make it that much easier for an independent expenditure effort to have an outsized influence on the race. That could take the form of, say, education reform advocates spending millions in an effort to get charter school and voucher supporter Williams elected mayor (or, just as easily; teacher unions doing the same to prevent a Williams victory).

If those independent expenditures don’t materialize, the city could be looking at a remarkably quiet mayoral election because the cash the candidates are raising right now simply isn’t enough to purchase meaningful television time (or much of anything, actually). That’s not inherently a bad thing. Candidates who can’t dominate the airwaves might have to agree to more debates. They might have to knock on more doors and press some more flesh. They might have to sit for more interviews, and take the risk of getting a hard question in exchange for some precious media exposure.

One wrinkle in all of this is Williams’ State Senate campaign committee, which is relatively flush with $426,000 in the bank and a hearty 2014 fundraising total of $761,000. Those big numbers suggest Williams does indeed have more fundraising potential than the rest of the field. But spending that money on his mayoral campaign is verboten (beyond the $11,500 contribution limit all PACs must adhere to in city elections) and Williams has already gotten some negative attention for using his senate campaign funds to “explore” his run for mayor. Now that he’s officially a candidate, most of that cash should be entirely off-limits.

Not long ago, the conventional wisdom was that a credible mayoral campaign would cost $5 million or so. It’d be stunning if any of the candidates can hit that mark now, given their slow starts. The way this election is shaping up, any campaign that raises $2 million or $3 million will have enough to seriously compete.

A final note: these figures really put into perspective just how remarkable Michael Nutter’s fundraising performance was in 2007. Unlike the guys he beat, he wasn’t a sitting Congressman, or a self-funded candidate, or the chair of the state House Appropriations committee. He was a B-list candidate like, let’s be honest, pretty much the entire 2015 field. And yet he proved that it’s entirely possible to raise large amounts of money, even in a contribution-capped campaign. It seems none of the 2015 candidates have absorbed his lessons.

See the chart below for a look at just how meager this fundraising showing is compared to prior competitive mayoral primaries in Philadelphia.