Campaign Finance Flare-Up

When is a run-off ... a run-off?

Lee Leffingwell
Lee Leffingwell (Photo by John Anderson)

The last batch of campaign finance reports before municipal election day came in Friday, May 1 ("eight day out" reports), and there's a lot more to them this time than lists of names and numbers. Lee Leffingwell's mayoral campaign has accused opponent Brewster McCracken's campaign of exceeding the legal cap on out-of-town donations by more than $8,000 and said a complaint would be filed in municipal court, charged with enforcing campaign finance laws. McCracken's camp insists it has broken no rules and is counteraccusing Leffingwell of dirty tricks.

Leffingwell consultant Mark Nathan noted that in McCracken's 30-day-out report, he had very nearly approached the limit – currently set at $33,000 – on out-of-town contributions. Yet in his newly released eight-day-out report, McCracken collected 50 additional out-of-town contributions, raising the total amount collected to more than $41,000. (The most prominent out-of-town contributor was former City Manager Toby Futrell, who coughed up $200.) Nathan points out that McCracken and Leffingwell both sponsored the 2006 ordinance doubling the out-of-town cap to $30,000 (indexed to inflation); he also notes that two years later, the entire council agreed to make campaign finance violations a criminal offense – specifically, a misdemeanor carrying a $500 fine for each separate offense.

McCracken spokesman Colin Rowan argues that the extra funds are allowable for run-off fundraising. "A regular campaign is allowed to raise $33,000 from out-of-town donors," he says. "They're also allowed in a run-off to raise up to $22,000 from out-of-town donors. That's a total of $55,000 in a run-off election that can be raised in total from donors outside the city." And, Rowan says, "there isn't anything in the code, as far as it has been interpreted to me, that you cannot raise money during the regular election for the run-off."

The problem with Rowan's argument is that the charter provision, as written, does not seem to leave much room for interpretation. Article III, Section 8, Paragraph 3 states: "No candidate and his or her committee shall accept an aggregate contribution total of more than $30,000 [adjusted for inflation to $33,000] per election, and $20,000 [$22,000] in the case of a runoff election [emphasis added], from sources other than natural persons eligible to vote in a postal zip code completely or partially within the Austin city limits."

Rowan points to the McCracken campaign's healthy cash-on-hand reserves – more than $76,000 – as proof that it hasn't spent the money yet. He also adds that candidates are allowed "officeholder accounts" up to $20,000. So, between the two allowances, he says: "In a run-off campaign, a candidate could raise a total of $75,000 from out-of-town donors. We raised in the neighborhood of $42,000." He has also vowed the campaign will return the funds if McCracken does not enter the run-off.

The burning question seems to be: Is there a run-off campaign before there's a run-off?

"The Leffingwell campaign has a history of making very serious ethical, criminal, and legal accusations of opponents at the 11th hour," says Rowan, referring to Leffingwell's 2008 council re-election campaign, which questioned whether illegal campaign coordination was occurring among its detractors. "There's not any 'there' there. It's a clever press release, it alleges a lot of really serious things, and there's nothing to it."

Nathan responds that the charter "clearly says candidates may only raise additional money 'in the case of a run-off.' There is no provision in the City Charter that allows you to raise money for the run-off before there even is a run-off." The Leffingwell campaign filed its complaint Monday afternoon.

In light of the above, it isn't surprising that McCracken out-raised Leffingwell, albeit narrowly: $74,049 to $69,611. Leffingwell still leads in cash-on-hand reserves, $87,444 to $76,379. Leffingwell's contributors include the usual mix of attorneys and progressives; donating this go-round were environmentalist Shudde Fath, Constable Bruce Elfant, and former state Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos. The expense side of Leffingwell's report included $25,000 for television advertising and $22,000-plus for direct mailers. McCracken's backers comprise the now-familiar composition of creative classers and development types: Bold-faced donors include South by Southwest head Roland Swenson and Austin Film Festival Executive Director Barbara Morgan, plus Pike Powers and wife Pam. McCracken spent nearly $62,000 in television advertising.

Carole Keeton Strayhorn had a relatively weak fundraising month, collecting just less than $40,000, and is going forward this last week with an anemic $17,000 on hand. But she's already paid Dresner, Wickers & Associates, the San Francisco-based firm that produced her TV spot, $81,000, presumably for its creation and an ad buy.

David Buttross apparently bundled some of his 30-day-out reporting with his eight-day-out disclosure; since the March 1 filing, he reports $3,550 in contributions, the same amount he lists as cash-on-hand; his campaign expenses look to have come out of a $30,000 loan he made to himself. Buttross is also responsible for all of Josiah Ingalls $215 in contributions; Ingalls has spent $100.18 at Wal-Mart on supplies.

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election, campaign finance, Brewster McCracken, Lee Leffingwell, City Council

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