Wanna Buy a Mayor?

How a bunch of deep-pocketed special-interest groups are going to control the mayoral race.


Photo illustration | Alyse Moyer. Photo credits | John Dougherty: Katharine Gilbert; Anthony Williams: Kimberly Paynter/WHYY/NewsWorks.org; Ken Trijilio: © 2014 Greg Wasserstrom for Friends of Ken Trujillo; Jim Kenney: © 2011 Will Connelly; Money, piggy bank and dollar sign: istock by getty images

In a nondescript office building four blocks northeast of the White House, a group of elite political consultants is making decisions that may well determine who gets Michael Nutter’s job in 2016. Stay positive, or go for the knees? Flood the airwaves, or lean on direct mail and robocalls? How best to soften up the enemy’s base? How to introduce voters to our guy?

The rub is that these operatives don’t work for any of the mayoral candidates — not directly, anyway.

Who pays their bills? We have a pretty good idea, but we won’t really know until the election is all but over, if then. How much money will they have to spend? The assumption is a lot — perhaps millions — but again, no disclosure is required until 11 days before the May 19th primary election. What do the funders want, exactly? We can guess, and we can ask them to explain, but they aren’t candidates. They don’t have to take questions from the press, or debate their foes, or defend their views.

This is the current reality of American politics, and for those who follow presidential or congressional elections, it’s not a particularly new development. It’s the Koch Brothers and George Soros, super PACs and dark money. But now, for the first time, similar forces are at work at the local level in Philadelphia, and all signs suggest they’ll play a dominant role in this spring’s election.

Unlike the official campaign committees of the mayoral candidates, these super PACs and dark-money movers aren’t bound by the city’s strict campaign-finance limits. Candidate campaigns in Philadelphia can accept a maximum of $2,900 from individual donors. But because of recent U.S. Supreme Court rulings, there are now no limits on donations to super PACs, and those committees are free to independently spend as much as they can raise on behalf of whichever candidates they support.

This isn’t simply a possibility. It’s already happening. Three local investment moguls gave a combined $250,000 to a new super PAC called American Cities last year, an amount widely considered to be a down payment on larger sums to come. The same trio of donors — founding directors of the Susquehanna International Group, a global trading firm headquartered in Bala Cynwyd — plunked down $5 million on Anthony Hardy Williams’s quixotic bid to become governor in 2010, simply to raise the profile of their pet issue (education reform). This time around, Williams is arguably the mayoral front-runner. Another $5 million spent on his behalf could assure him the election.

Or not. There are other super PACs out there, with strategies and special interests of their own, and some of them will work to counter Williams. By my count, there could be five or six well-funded “independent expenditure” committees operating in Philadelphia this election cycle. Maybe more. Maybe less.

Sorry to be imprecise, but it’s very difficult, sometimes by design, to discern exactly what these outfits are up to. “If they’re smart, nobody will know anything about anything,” says longtime political consultant Ken Smukler. “Nobody will suspect until the ads hit, and they’ll hit hard, and then everybody will be scrambling.”

The candidates, though, can scramble only so much. Philadelphia’s mayoral contenders are broke. When the year began, they had just one-sixth as much total cash in their campaign bank accounts as the big-name mayoral field of 2007 (which featured Michael Nutter, Chaka Fattah, Tom Knox, Bob Brady and Dwight Evans). Presumably, the tepid fund-raising pace will pick up at least a little for Williams, Lynne Abraham and Jim Kenney. But given their slow start, and the general lack of enthusiasm for the field, these campaigns are probably not going to have the resources to effectively respond to a blistering series of dark-money attack ads.

And that separates Philadelphia from other cities that have already been infiltrated by dark money and independent expenditures. Unshackled political action committees have already been factors in mayoral races in Boston, New York, Newark and Chicago. But in those contests, the candidates still raised most of the money and controlled the tenor and focus of the campaigns.

In Philadelphia, that basic, little-d democratic proposition — that the candidates are broadly responsible for the campaign — appears to be at risk. Right now, there’s good reason to think super PACs and dark- money nonprofits could outspend the mayoral candidates. Potentially by a lot. So: Whose election is this, really?

HOW DID WE get here?

Philly’s current campaign laws have their roots in the FBI bugging of Mayor John Street’s office in 2003. Street won re-election, but the probe galvanized reformers and led to sweeping and effective new laws in Philadelphia that clamped down on public corruption, starting with strict limits on how much individuals and PACs could contribute to candidates for city office.

The seeming superiority of this approach was proven in 2007 when Michael Nutter, operating under the new law, still raised millions of dollars (much of it through small checks from average Philadelphians) and bested Tom Knox, who had sunk $10 million of his own funds into his campaign. The campaign-finance limits had survived a crucial test. The debate was robust; the new mayor was beholden to no one; City Hall gleamed just a little bit brighter.

Fast-forward to 2015, though, and the wisdom of the city’s campaign finance limits seems a bit less certain. Well and proper to restrict donations locally, but if the Supreme Court has ruled that independent groups are free to spend — and receive — as much as they like from anyone, the city’s candidates can appear diminished by comparison.

“This will be the first Philadelphia mayoral race that will largely be run by these outside donors, by groups that are unknown and unaccountable, and not by the campaigns of the candidates themselves,” predicts newly minted U.S. Representative Brendan Boyle, who was both the beneficiary and target of independent expenditures in his election last year. Boyle believes the current setup — tight limits on the candidates themselves and basically no limits on everyone else — is “insane.”

“When you’re running for office, you want to be able to stand up and say: ‘Here’s what I believe, this is why I’m running.’ But if some group is able to put something out there that you’re not comfortable with and you can’t coordinate with them whatsoever, it’s very frustrating,” Boyle says.

The law regarding independent expenditures is pretty loose, but the prohibition on coordinating with candidates is real. By definition, these committees have to be genuinely independent. That gives them freedom: freedom to be harsher than a candidate ever would be; freedom to wield a wedge in ways a mayoral hopeful would be reluctant to; freedom to hide behind nigh-impenetrable corporate structures that conceal who’s footing the bill.

Not all independent expenditure efforts are so nefarious, however. Some air positive, biographical ads of the candidate the committee supports. Some even operate relatively transparently. Philadelphia is likely to see a bit of both this cycle. Who’s going to have an outsize influence on the election of our next mayor? Here’s a rundown.

The Ed Reformers

Look for a pack of PACs working to elect Anthony Williams, who’s got probably the most aggressive education reform agenda of any elected Democrat in the state. Williams is pro-voucher, and he favors rapid expansion of charter schools. Those views have made him a darling of the national education reform movement, which has marshaled a dizzying array of PACs in state and local races across the country. Any number of those PACs could choose to play in Philadelphia, either with traditional donations to candidates or through independent expenditure campaigns all their own. Often, ed reform election activists include profit-minded education entrepreneurs, which opens up their favored candidates to easy assaults: My opponent is supported by evil businessmen who want to profit off your kids.

But the biggest pro-Williams money is likely to come from the wealthy trio of Joel Greenberg, Arthur Dantchik and Jeff Yass, who helped to found the global trading firm Susquehanna International Group. They are adamant that there is no profit motive behind their well-funded education activism. “We never have operated and never will operate charter schools or any other type of school. This is purely a philanthropic endeavor for us,” Greenberg wrote in an emailed statement. “We just want to help parents who have kids trapped in violent, failing schools get the opportunity to choose quality schools — be it public charters, public, parochial or private schools.”

Greenberg, Dantchik and Yass will funnel their support for Williams through the new American Cities PAC, which was set up for the trio by power lawyer Mark L. Alderman, of Cozen O’Connor. The PAC is already paying those D.C. consultants, as well as campaign experts in New York and Minnesota. Greenberg wouldn’t say how much he and his friends will spend in support of Williams, but it’s clear they are willing to give very generously indeed to the American Cities PAC. Expect spending in the millions, not the hundreds of thousands.

The Teachers Unions

The teachers unions aren’t about to let ed reformers rule the airwaves uncontested. The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers hasn’t historically been a particularly potent political force — its PAC has spent, on average, less than $200,000 a year since 2010.

But the national American Federation of Teachers is a different story. The union has shown it’s willing to spend significant money when teachers’ interests are threatened. Two years ago, the union funded controversial radio ads targeting Mayor Nutter and Governor Corbett as city teachers were being asked to accept pay cuts and higher health-care costs in contract negotiations.

The AFT also isn’t above masking its role in municipal elections. In Boston’s 2013 mayoral contest, the union fed $480,000 to a mysterious PAC that helped propel candidate Marty Walsh into office with a blitz of advertising in the election’s final days. None of that was revealed until the election was over, as the AFT avoided disclosure requirements by funneling the cash through yet another teacher-friendly PAC in another state (a classic dark-money move).

How much will the AFT invest to thwart Tony Williams? The eventual answer to that question could be one of the most critical of the 2015 mayoral election.

Big Business

Less than a day after lawyer and businessman Ken Trujillo dropped out of the mayoral race in January, speculation was rampant about which candidate he would support and how much cash he might infuse into that campaign. Trujillo still hasn’t endorsed anyone, but he confirms he’s exploring a big independent expenditure effort. “I think $1 million to $2 million can have a significant impact in this primary,” he says.

If it materializes, a Trujillo-led independent expenditure committee would knock on the doors of wealthy Philadelphia lawyers and business owners who’ve seen their once-mighty influence over municipal elections wane dramatically under the city’s campaign-finance limits. The rise of independent expenditure committees, though, could give those old power players a chance to write their six-figure checks once again. Whom would Trujillo’s potential committee benefit? Whichever candidate understands “that we can’t keep looking for ways to tax our working families; that growing our economy is the best way to get the resources to fix our schools. … ”

There seems sure to be at least one big-business, no-limits political player in the 2015 city elections: a new organization formed by Joe and Rob Zuritsky, the father-and-son team that owns Parkway Corp. It’s called Philly 3.0 (though it was originally known as Philly Rising), and because it was first organized as a nonprofit corporation “to ensure good government and to promote strong policies to improve the City of Philadelphia,” the entity has the legal ability not just to spend freely on the election, but to keep secret the identities of its donors.

Labor and John Dougherty

No discussion of campaign cash is complete without Johnny Doc, whose Electricians Union Local 98 has emerged as one of the single most potent campaign funders in the state. And Dougherty’s sway has only grown. In a bid to keep labor leaders (relatively) united during the mayoral election, he’s been hosting monthly meetings attended by most of the city’s union bosses. Dougherty told the Inquirer in late January that the group may mount an independent expenditure effort, presumably for Kenney, whom Doc supports.

THERE’S A VERY good chance these special interests will run away with the mayoral election. They have the money, and money equals television time, and television time usually leads to electoral victory. But not always. In Newark, ed reform groups outspent teacher allies two to one, and lost. Closer to home, Tom Knox spent $12 million in 2006 and 2007 to Nutter’s $4.2 million and still finished a distant second in the Democratic mayoral primary.

The point is that high-quality candidates can trump big money. It remains to be seen if this mayoral field includes any such candidates.​ If not, this election is shaping up to be a collision between mass voter indifference and massive special-interest cash.