FOLLOW THE MONEY: Local elections should run on local dollars
Updated: Oct 25, 2021
By Editorial Board
It’s concerning that several campaign finance committees named for towns like Kennedy, Robinson and McKees Rocks actually derive most of their funding from business owners and political organizations based in places like McMurray, Gibsonia and even New Jersey.
While municipal election expenses usually are limited to the cost of a few hundred yard signs and an ad or two in the newspaper (we offer great rates by the way), some local committees have accrued comfortable bursaries from which to wage their campaigns.
For instance, the Kennedy Democratic Committee currently has slightly less than $54,000 at its disposal, according to a finance report filed with Allegheny County in June. So where has it all come from?
Well, this year, the well-endowed Kennedy Democrats raised $8,350, with $6,200 from individuals and organizations registered to addresses outside Kennedy. All of the remaining $2,150 came from candidates, or their close relatives, running on the committee’s support.
While most other local committees work with shorter ledgers, the same pattern emerges.
Currently sitting on the more modest total of $19,000, Robinson’s democratic committee has so far raised no local money this year, according to county records. But it has drawn $2,000 from two individuals and a political action committee in Bridgeville, McMurray and Washington D.C., respectively.
Two years ago, the ironically-named McKees Rocks First (head-quartered in Sewickley) funded an entire $6,000 campaign through the generous contributions of one developer based in – yes – Sewickley (although he does have assets in McKees Rocks).
This year it seems the Sewickley money dried up, except for a $556 in-kind donation from a Sewickley golf club that apparently felt a debt of civic duty to certain office-seekers in McKees Rocks. Another golf club in Gibsonia one-upped this offer with an $800 in-kind donation. Both donations – free green passes for groups of four – were given as prizes in a raffle drive that is recorded as having generated $5,400 for McKees Rocks candidates this spring.
The self-described grassroots “A New Voice for McKees Rocks” committee has a better track-record with generating small local donations over the years, however, the bulk of its funding this campaign season came in the form of a $2,600 donation from an Allison Park resident who owns a stake in a McKees Rocks business. Grassroots you say?
Since 1937, office-seekers in Pennsylvania have been required to disclose campaign contributions above a certain level (currently $50). The impetus behind this mandate is best summed up in the pithy phrase from “All the President’s Men:” Follow the money.
While in fact crafted by screenwriter William Goldman and never recorded in Bob Woodward’s landmark investigative reporting, the phrase has entered the popular imagination because it captures a timeless truth in just three words.
It should concern tax-paying residents when candidates get help obtaining office from vested powers looking to steer events from outside the community. It should similarly concern tax-paying residents when, through their networks and allegiances, incumbents can bring in outside money from groups or individuals that have no interest in swaying local happenings but will respond to the call of an ally in need.
Equally troubling, the majority of local committees don’t raise enough money from nefarious external sources to raise an eyelid, but they have no more success raising dollars from small local donations. Many local Republican and Democratic committees have stopped funding races altogether in recent years.
While too much money generated from the wrong sources is evidently damaging to local elections, too little money generated by those who are ultimately charged with casting ballots speaks of similar problems. If candidates can wage successful races simply through word of mouth and hoping for the best, then some doubtless end up in local government without putting in the work to truly earn your vote.
A developer in Florida looking to dump millions of dollars into your town’s local elections to shore up a cozy deal with potential office-holders can only buy your vote through dazzling marketing drives if you’re willing to give them your attention.
The best defense against any meddling in your community is to take ownership as a voter. Find out who your candidates are, find out why they’re running and find out who wants them to run and why. If you see someone who seems intent on bringing positive change without strings, consider putting up a yard sign and telling a few neighbors.
Then make sure you cast your vote.