In 2013, City Council candidates in the Democratic primary spent an average of around $2,500. In this year’s June primary, that average number soared to nearly $19,000. And the surge in spending is causing some concern.
“I am worried the cost is going up and will discourage people from running,” says Mayor Satyendra Huja, who is not seeking reelection. He spent around $1,600 to get the nomination in 2007 at a convention rather than a primary, and more than $8,200 in the 2011 Dem firehouse primary, according to Virginia Public Access Project, a nonpartisan tracker of money in Virginia politics.
This year’s Democratic candidates filed final primary financial reports July 15. Mike Signer, who ran for lieutenant governor in 2009, continued to lead in both fundraising and spending, pulling in $44,670 and spending $40,738. That netted him the second highest number of votes, 1,855, 20 more votes than the number received by incumbent Kathy Galvin, who spent $13,694 to get the nomination—about $27,000 less than Signer.
Wes Bellamy was the biggest vote-getter and the second biggest spender at $22,623. He says he’s not sure if this level of spending is the new norm.
“I think it’s going to be based on the field,” he says. “This year was a very competitive field,” with two incumbents, Galvin and Dede Smith; Signer, who had run in a statewide race; and Bellamy himself, who lost by five votes two years ago. “I didn’t raise the most money but I got the most votes,” notes Bellamy. “When you lose by four or five votes, you don’t leave any stones unturned. We ran a hard race.”
Incumbent Dede Smith spent $14,606, which wasn’t enough to secure the nomination. And Lena Seville, who came in fifth in the field of five, spent around $1,900.
Signer’s publicist, Susan Payne, says Signer’s expenditures on television and his website were not out of line with the other candidates, but he did spend more on mass mailings. Signer also spent more on consultants: $3,643 on Payne Ross for marketing consultation, and in the final filing between May 28 and June 30, he paid $2,800 to his campaign manager and $1,000 to another consultant, according to his financial report.
“Primaries are expensive,” says former vice mayor Kevin Lynch, and cost was one of the things debated when city Dems went from a Saturday convention to a primary to nominate its candidates.
A primary “is a lot more democratic,” says Lynch, allowing people to participate who might not be able to spend a Saturday in a convention. On the other hand, “You’ve got to raise a lot of money.” And candidates still have to make phone calls and knock on doors.
City Councilor Bob Fenwick says the amount spent in the primary does give him concern. “I can’t control what other people do or raise,” he says. “I’ve just got to work harder.”
Lynch isn’t convinced hard work will be enough in the face of big bucks. “I’m disappointed with Dede not being reelected, because she’s one of the hardest working on council,” he says.
Huja thinks too much money was spent for a City Council primary. And if this is the new norm, says Huja, “We need to change the norm.”