What’s a vote worth? Cash pouring into mayoral campaigns makes you wonder

By Peter Dorfman

How much does it cost to run a mayoral campaign in a small town like Bloomington, Indiana? How much should it cost? And what does the money actually pay for?

The financial reports (CFA-4s) for the campaigns are out and we know how much money each of the candidates raised in 2022, and from whom. That includes then-City Council President Susan Sandberg, then-Deputy Mayor Donald Griffin, challenger Kerry Thomson and Mayor John Hamilton. Before Hamilton took himself out of the race in November, clearing the way for Griffin, his campaign had raised about $45,000, much of which presumably will go to Griffin’s campaign (although the mayor can spread it around among multiple campaigns if he chooses — he has several other allies running for office).

We have very useful analysis of these reports from Dave Askins’ cogent January 19 article in the B Square Bulletin. Or you can read the CFA-4s for yourself and do your own analysis.

What’s difficult to understand is the scale of these fundraising operations. Bloomington is a small town to begin with. And one of the distinguishing features of its elections is their perennially low turnout — typically 8 to 10% in a citywide primary. (It was 8% in 2019.) That means the entire electorate in Bloomington is, optimistically, around 8000 voters. And a candidate needs only half of them (4000) to ensure victory. We don’t know how much the top money-raiser has pulled in since the beginning of 2023, but by year’s end Kerry Thomson had already raised, and presumably is prepared to spend, $23.25 per vote.

Does she really need that to compete with Susan Sandberg, who has raised far less? Probably not.

Kerry Thomson said the right sorts of things in defense of the core neighborhoods in public comments during the 2020-2021 debates over Bloomington’s upzoning. Just last week, she made a couple of useful suggestions for dealing with the opaque machinations we’ve gotten used to at City Hall and the difficulty of securing access to documents and data that should be transparently available to the public and the media.

It’s disturbing, though, that Thomson was able to raise $93,000 in 2022 without ever taking a substantive public position on any issue of direct relevance to Bloomington voters. (It’s as much a reflection of Bloomingtonians’ tendency to gravitate toward candidates who offer ideals that match up with the prevailing progressive ideological profile as it is a measure of the campaign’s fundraising chops — which do seem formidable.)

Seriously: Thomson cites “attainable housing” (whatever that is) and “clear paths” to community safety as objectives, and touts her experience as a non-profit executive. And in November she did show up at a City Council meeting to support a stop sign at Maxwell and Sheridan in Elm Heights. But like a lot of Bloomington campaigns, Kerry’s is almost exclusively about who she is and not about what she has done or would commit to doing as Mayor of Bloomington.

She’s clearly getting across to a lot of people who are in a position to write her checks, but I am wondering when she’s going to get down to specifics about the things a mayor actually does.

Griffin will be a legitimate threat to outspend Thomson; he didn’t have an opportunity to raise much in his own right last year, but he’ll have access to Hamilton’s war chest, and a fat cat fundraiser in Indianapolis that Hamilton is planning for Griffin in early March should arm the former Deputy Mayor to do the things political campaigns do with large wads of cash.

But how much is enough? In such a small-time election, it’s fair to wonder where the campaigns run out of practical ways to spend their donated cash — and where contributions morph into opportunities to get the candidate’s attention.

One thing is clear: A lot of money is coming into Bloomington from high-dollar contributors who don’t live here — into the coffers of Griffin and Thomson, at least. (The much leaner Sandberg campaign raised all of its 2022 contributions locally, and has pledged publicly not to accept any contributions from large developers.)

It seems reasonable to wonder what strings are attached to large contributions, especially those from out-of-town corporations and the individuals affiliated with those corporations. But that’s the beauty of the requirement, under campaign finance law, that candidates file CFA-4s, which identify donors who give more than $100, either in cash or in kind.

It can help assiduous investigative reporters, or the opposition researchers helping the campaigns, to identify donors one might reasonably expect to anticipate a quid pro quo, such as a consulting project with the city.

Or, in a city where it is widely perceived that the real estate industry has excessive power, access and influence, the transparency provided by the CFA-4s can help illuminate how much of a campaign’s cash is coming from donors with significant stakes in land transactions.

We look forward to reading the results of that sort of analysis.

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