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Adler wants group to study campaign finance rules

Friday, January 9, 2015 by Jo Clifton

New Austin Mayor Steve Adler wants a group of reform-minded citizens to consider whether Austin needs to tweak its campaign finance rules. He has already talked to attorney Fred Lewis about helping with the project. Lewis, with a background in campaign finance reform, is the leader of Texans Together, which works to foster grass-roots activism.

During the long race culminating in his victory, Adler estimates he spent $1.3 to $1.4 million. He loaned his campaign $306,000 and collected three times that much from contributors.

Mike Martinez, Adler’s opponent, had more name recognition when the race started. He loaned his campaign $100,000. Adler says when all the reports are filed, he believes Martinez will have spent around $400,000.

But none of these numbers take into account the considerable backing Martinez received from political action committees, notably the two PACs set up by Austin firefighters and another sponsored by the employee union AFSCME, as well as an out-of-state labor PAC.

Adler had some PAC backing also, though considerably less than Martinez.

The firefighters, for example, reported $170,000 in independent expenditures on behalf of the Martinez campaign between the Nov. 4 election and Dec. 8. They reported spending $136,873.41 to support Martinez as well as several other candidates in the Nov. 4 election. The report lists all the candidates, but it is difficult to tell who spent how much money on which candidate.

Two Austin Monitor polls showed Adler with 56 percent and his opponent, Mike Martinez, at 35 to 39 percent. Adler said the 67 percent majority that he received in the runoff was the result of voters getting more information than they had when they took the polls.

Adler said his campaign learned that the South Carolina labor PAC was making false accusations against him from supporters who got phone calls from the group. He said it was necessary to spend considerably more money to inform voters of the truth — namely that he had not done any legal work for the Koch brothers. This was an important factor for strong Democrats, but not so much for other voters.

This election was different from those in recent years because so many more people voted in November than have voted in May city elections. This year, 175,165 voters cast ballots in the mayor’s race, compared to fewer than 50,000 in the May 2012 election of Mayor Lee Leffingwell.

“The mayor in past elections was reaching out to a universe pretty well-known of 50,000 people. And they spent $300,000 to do that,” Adler said. “And you knew which 50,000 people you were reaching out to. So everybody could do the media targeted to those people. So that was $300,000 to effectively communicate to 50,000 people.”

He continued: “We got into an election that has 200,000 people, maybe 250,000 people to communicate to. So if it cost historically $300,000 to reach 50,000 people and we’re talking about four or five times as many people for five times the result … I think it’s reasonable to expect that a similar campaign in terms of messaging would be four or five times that much.”

Adler argues that his campaign spent money efficiently for the number of people the campaign had to reach. “That would be $1.2 million to $1.5 million. That is what it would cost,” he said.

“I had virtually no name recognition when we started the campaign,” Adler continued. “So not only did it require me to reach out to that number of people, it also required me to introduce myself to that number of people — which also costs more. So if the mayor in his last race spent $300,000 and he was already a sitting mayor, maybe the cost should be higher to reach 250,000 people.

“Obviously, there are some economies of scale, because you don’t have to pay consultants five times as much. But by and large, there is a relationship between how much you spend and the number of people you are trying to reach. It impacts the number of mail pieces, it impacts the number that gets sent out, it impacts your people that you have, how many doors you’re knocking on,” he said.

“I think the more disturbing trend in this race was the PAC money and the outside people. … You had the South Forward PAC that sent out two mailers [slamming me] and had a pretty extensive phone banking operation, and you had a field organizer that came in to town and set up a field team. So how much did they spend?” The public does not know yet how much the PAC spent. “I’m not sure we’ll ever know. … So that’s another $150,000, maybe.”

Lewis is enthusiastic about the chance to look at Austin’s campaign finance laws. He told the Monitor, “I told Steve that the laws had not been looked at comprehensively since 1994, and I thought it would be a good idea to look at that in light of changing times, Supreme Court cases” and Austin’s new system of government.

“I have worked with Steve at the [legislature] when he was chief of staff” for Sen. Elliott Shapleigh, Lewis said, “So we have a history of working on this. We’ve got a new form of government. … The last time we looked at this was 20 years ago, so I think it’s a good time to look at it and study and see if we can … come up with something” that works.



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