Council primary costlier than reported: Signer campaign manager demands retraction

Will Mike Signer get enough votes to become the next mayor? Submitted photo Will Mike Signer get enough votes to become the next mayor? Submitted photo

When C-VILLE reported last week about how much money was raised and spent in the June 9 Democratic primary, “Big money: Dede Smith voted out in high-dollars primary,” the article didn’t make clear that the numbers used were from a May 27 filing and the final numbers won’t be in until July 15. C-VILLE has run a clarification and changed the story online, but Mike Signer’s campaign manager, Maggie Thornton-Gilliam, says the story should be retracted, because until the final numbers are in, “this story is flat out incorrect, despite the clarification.”

Geoffrey Skelley at UVA’s Center for Politics disagrees: “Despite having incomplete data, the public needs someone to investigate where the money is coming from and how much is being spent, so it’s completely fair and necessary for journalists to use the data they have at their disposal.”

The latest figures leading up to the July 15 reporting deadline show the candidates in the June primary spent even more than previously reported, but Signer still appears to hold the lead in both spending and fundraising. In his May 27 filing, he reported spending $27,796 and receiving donations of $39,945, the largest amount ever raised for a Charlottesville City Council primary. Signer told C-VILLE last week that he attributes his win to shoe leather and 250 hours of knocking on doors, not cash on hand.

Whether those numbers will change remains to be seen. Thornton-Gilliam declines to provide additional figures before July 15, and Signer did not respond to a phone call requesting that information.

One of Thornton-Gilliam’s concerns with numbers used in C-VILLE’s previous article is that while Signer had already reported the amount he spent on television advertising in the May 27 filing, Wes Bellamy had not.

Top vote getter Bellamy still has not officially reported those television expenses, but he estimates he took in between $7,000 and $8,000 in donations after the May 27 filing, and spent about the same amount on television and radio advertising and other expenses. He’d previously reported spending $7,117, and the additional $8,000 works out to a cost of around $6.09 for each of the 2,483 votes he got in the primary. Second-place finisher Signer spent nearly $15 each for his 1,855 votes, according to his May 27 filing.

The cost per vote estimates based on the May 27 numbers in the last article were another sticking point for Thornton-Gilliam, who asserts that they can’t be accurately presented until the final filings are in.

“It’s not misleading to calculate the cost-per-vote based on the last reporting period,” says Skelley, “but I would say that you definitely need to make it clear that the data are not final and that the numbers will change when the final reports are submitted.”

Incumbent Kathy Galvin came in third, just barely behind Signer by 20 votes. Galvin writes in an e-mail that she’s on vacation, doesn’t have her records and suggests waiting until mid-July when the official reports are due. According to Virginia Public Access Project, Galvin has reported receiving $4,000 in donations after the May 27 filing. C-VILLE will also write an update following the reporting deadline.

In Virginia, candidates who receive $500 or more in the 13 days before an election must disclose it, explains VPAP executive director David Poole. “The idea is if someone receives a game-changing amount of money from someone with an interest in City Council, it would be relevant.”

Incumbent Dede Smith’s cost per vote also went up significantly after the May 27 filing, mostly in buying TV time. She says she spent $11,400, which puts the 1,613 votes she got at around $7.07 apiece.

Last place finisher Lena Seville’s numbers will probably change the least when the final numbers are filed July 15. “I might have spent a little bit more—maybe $100,” says Seville, who bought no TV time and had previously reported spending $1,769. That extra $100 bumps her per-vote spending to $2.87 for each of the 651 votes she received, the lowest of any candidate.

VPAP’s Poole says until the final accounting is done, we can’t know how much a campaign costs. But he says there’s value in providing snapshots of candidate spending and fundraising before the election.

Thornton-Gilliam is unlikely to be convinced, and writes in an e-mail, “I maintain that given that C-VILLE cannot know how much each campaign spent until after the July 15 deadline, the story from last week should be retracted.”

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