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Explainer: What it cost to run for Council in 2014

Monday, January 19, 2015 by Michael Kanin

Each week the Explainer offers a closer look at stories we have been following. This week examines the relative costs of getting elected to Austin City Council in 2014.

The 2014 Council election was, of course, the most expensive in city history. New Mayor Steve Adler alone spent around $1.5 million over the span of his campaign. Even a race in one of the freshly drawn districts cost a fair amount of treasure, the best example being District 10 candidate Robert Thomas, who crossed the six-figure mark on his way to a third-place finish in the November general election.

But those weren’t the only candidates who spent big this past election. After doing a little digging, the Monitor found that the most expensive race cost $36.12 per vote in the November general election. The candidate? District 4’s Laura Pressley.

Still — and despite the notion that, generally, the new system would mean that Council race participation would cost less — this year’s election cycle was expensive. This may be a byproduct of 10-1, or a side effect from a year in which more than 70 candidates decided they’d like to give Council memberships a shot. Or it may be a stand-alone moment fueled by unprecedented interest — an interest that we may never see again. Or maybe some other scenario will present itself.

Whatever the circumstances, the Monitor looked at what it cost this election for the winning candidates to make their respective cases for office. A spreadsheet, showing our work, is below. To get the figures, we added the expenditures lines (Line 4 in the reports) in campaign finance reports from July 15, 2014, through Jan. 15, 2015. We separated the general expenditures (July 15 — the Eighth Day Out From the General Report) from the runoff expenditures (the rest).

A few basic stats first: The medianaverage cost for participation in the 2014 Austin City Council general election season was $124,411.88. This, of course, was skewed by the whopping $935,505.25 Adler spent through the General Eighth Day Out reports. The average for the runoff was $99,832 — numbers also skewed by Adler’s $583,020.95.

The median for the general election was $58,271.45. The median for the runoff was $54,081.52. Neither numbers, the dead middle of the cost it took to get involved, represent what might be considered chump change.

We also divided the total costs of each winner’s campaign by the number of votes they received in both the runoff and the general elections. The average per-vote cost of a 2014 general election Council campaign was $12.28. The average per-vote cost of the runoff was slightly higher, at $14.66. Median costs were $10.03 and $11.22, respectively.

The higher per-vote costs in the runoff is explained by the fact that fewer voters took part, while spending in many races continued to flow.

Now, the details: The mayor’s race was by far the most expensive of the contests. In the general election, Adler paid $935,505.25 for 64,416 votes, putting the campaign at $14.52 per vote. In the runoff, Adler spent $583,020.95. That calculates to $11.18 per vote.

Former Council Member Mike Martinez, Adler’s opponent, was a bit more frugal. He spent $369,224.35 in the general election — still an unprecedented figure — for 51,892 votes. That translated to a per-vote cost of $7.12. In the runoff, Martinez spent $156,649.66. Divided by the 25,639 votes he won in that election, he spent roughly $6.11 per vote.

Viewed as such, the Martinez campaign cost approximately half of Adler’s campaign.

Still, the most expensive per vote race was in District 4. It was, you will remember, the most contentious on the ballot. The winner, Greg Casar, poured $82,446.28 into his general election victory.

In the runoff, Casar spent even more: $97,883.02. That translated to a per-vote cost of $34.40 for 3272 votes.

Still, it was not the highest per-vote figure of those surveyed (though we did not do the calculations for Thomas’ campaign; he will probably rank up there). Pressley, Casar’s opponent, spent $65,946.30 in her general election bid for 1,826 votes. That meant a per vote cost of $36.12. Pressley’s spending decreased for the runoff, and the $35,514.01 spent in that contest translated to $22.72 per vote for the 1,563 votes earned.

We should note that Pressley is challenging the results of the election. Should she be successful, we will note any change in our figures.

The lowest cost per vote we found landed in District 3, where now-Council Member “Pio” Renteria spent $4,866.15 in the general election for 1,919 votes; a neat per-vote cost of $2.54. His opponent — and sister — Susana Almanza spent $15,242.41 for 2,142 votes in the general, with a per-vote cost of $7.12.

In the runoffs, Renteria’s fortunes spiked. He spent $42,411.58 for 2,558 votes. That is $16.58 per vote. Almanza, however, continued to outpace her brother. She spent $35,609.89 to land 1,724 votes, or $20.66 per vote.

Both Renteria and Almanza, as well as now-Council Member Leslie Pool (District 7), received campaign dollars from the City’s Fair Campaign Finance Fund. That provided each of them with an additional $27,000-plus.

Council Members Delia Garza and Ann Kitchen, as well as Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo, managed to avoid a runoff entirely. In the general election, Garza spent $38,779.14, or $6.95 per vote. Kitchen spent $125,249.45, or $10.99 per vote. Tovo spent $170,140.92, or $16.94 per vote.

The rest of the numbers are in the spreadsheet below. We will hold off on a more general conclusion about affordability until we see another set of elections. But based on what is here, early indications are that it may still cost a fair amount to run for office.

This story has been updated to correctly refer to the average cost of a Council candidacy, and to clarify that the D4 race was the most expensive per vote race.

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