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Tuesday, December 15, 2015 by Jo Clifton

City campaign law on trial in federal court

On Monday, during the first day of trial in City Council Member Don Zimmerman’s suit against the city, the District 6 Council member told federal Judge Lee Yeakel that his First Amendment rights are being violated by Austin’s campaign finance laws.

Zimmerman explained that he needs to start raising money as soon as possible for re-election because his opponents will raise more money than they did the first time around, in 2014. He said his opponents did not take him seriously early in the campaign of 2014, but they do now.

Like all candidates for city offices, Zimmerman cannot legally start raising funds until six months before the November 2016 election.

Zimmerman would like to start raising money not only in Austin but also in conservative circles around the country. There is currently a prohibition on raising more than $36,000 outside what the city’s attorney, Renea Hicks, called the Austin ZIP code envelope.

Hicks pointed out that during the 2014 race, Zimmerman did not raise anywhere near the limit on contributions from outside of Austin.

However, Brendan Steinhauser, a political consultant who has worked for numerous Republicans, testified that he could raise money for Zimmerman among people who supported the Ron Paul for President campaign in 2012. “In the so-called liberty movement, there are hundreds of thousands of dedicated liberty activists and donors around the country,” Steinhauser said. “I would tell Mr. Zimmerman, hey, … we need to find a way to get their support and endorsement or at least lend their name to a direct mail piece, to an email blast … because that Paul family brand, that liberty brand, often comes with money and votes.”

He added, “So people who don’t have a lot of information about a candidate, or even if they do but they’re unsure, when somebody comes in and endorses, someone who is a national figure and is known for their principles and their stands – left, right, center, whatever – attaching that brand, attaching that support to a candidate at the local level is very powerful.”

Steinhauser said a good email list of conservatives from around the state could include 100,000 names of people who would be likely to contribute and/or add their name to Zimmerman’s list. He said companies with the types of emails he was looking for included TownHall.com and the Campaign for Liberty.

As his website says, pollster and consultant Leland Beatty has provided “professional services as a consultant and subject matter expert in predictive analytics” in numerous jurisdictions around the country. However, Beatty, who said he spends most of his time working for Democrats and progressives, was not able to give his expert opinion in this case because of an objection from Hicks, the city’s outside counsel.

Beatty did testify that he worked for the Austin Police Association and the Home Builders Association of Greater Austin during the 2014 City Council campaign, providing them with models about how people felt about the organization and what might happen in the election.

After the hearing, Beatty told the Austin Monitor what he did not get to say in court: that the two best predictors of who would win in an individual Council race were the amount of money spent and the number of endorsements from political action committees.

“When you model this out and do an explanatory model,” he said, “the number of endorsements by PACs (in the 2014 Council races) was the biggest single explanatory factor,” explaining perhaps 60 percent of the reason a particular candidate won.

“The second biggest explanatory factor was total campaign expense,” he said. “But these factors overlapped.” In other words, endorsements from PACs brought a campaign extra money, so the person ending up with the largest campaign bank account was also the person with the most endorsements. “When you put them together, they explain about 70 percent of the outcome,” Beatty said.

So looking to see if there is one factor that explains both the endorsements and the additional money, Beatty said, “that factor is the amount of money you loaned yourself or gave yourself at the outset of your campaign. So, personal investment is the single biggest predictor of endorsements and total campaign expense. You start with money, you get money. You start with money, you’re credible.”

He said Austin’s campaign finance system is like a drag race, because the time for raising and spending money is so short. At the start of the race, he said, “if the other guy can afford to fill up his tank, and you have to spare-change the crowd to get gas money, well, he’s already won the race.”

Beatty continued, “If you were to stretch that out, and it’s not a drag race anymore, then lower campaign finance limits would work. But you can’t just do this (law) without shifting the burden of power to the special interests – and the richer candidates,” Beatty said. He said there were approximately 23 PACs participating in the City Council process.

Testimony will continue at 9 a.m. today with witnesses for the city.

Photo by Counse made available through a Creative Commons license

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

Campaign Finance: One of the tributaries to the Colorado River, starting in northwest Austin.

Don Zimmerman: Former Austin City Council Member for District 6 (2014-2016)

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