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So far three Democrats have officially filed to run for mayor of Bloomington in the municipal elections this year. And so far, all three have pledged not to accept any corporate money to fund their campaigns. But does that pledge really mean businesses won’t influence the mayoral election? WFHB News Director Joe Crawford brings us that story for today’s WFHB community report.
John Hamilton started the conversation about campaign finance. Just more than a week after he filed to run for mayor last month, Hamilton’s campaign distributed a press release. In it, Hamilton says he won’t take campaign contributions from “any corporations or business organizations.”
Running for mayor of Bloomington is not particularly expensive compared to, say, running for governor or president. But candidates do typically spend money on things like signs and mailers. In 2011, when Hamilton ran for mayor against Mayor Mark Kruzan, he spent about $100,000.
“I announced on the fifth anniversary of Citizens United I would not accept corporate contributions to the campaign even though that terrible Supreme Court decision said you could, legally,” Hamilton said.
To be clear, the race for Bloomington mayor doesn’t have much to do with Citizens United. That decision affected federal elections, not local ones. But Hamilton’s press release got him some relatively favorable news coverage in both the Herald-Times and the Indiana Daily Student, who both quoted him talking about the dangers of the Citizens United ruling.
Hamilton’s stance — against the Supreme Court decision that opened the floodgates for even more corporate money into our electoral process — is not an unfamiliar or probably an unpopular one in Bloomington. The City Council and the Monroe County Commissioners both passed resolutions a few years ago in favor of a constitutional amendment to effectively undo the ruling. Lots of residents have spoken publicly about their concerns that corporations are gaining more and more power over our elected officials. One of Hamilton’s supporters, James Allison, wrote a play about it a couple years ago that was performed at the Unitarian Church. It’s frankly, not a very controversial position here.
So it’s probably not surprising that both of Hamilton’s competitors took him up on the challenge to accept no donations from corporations. Here’s one of those candidates, City Council member Darryl Neher. He also mentions Citizens United.
“I’m on record even back in 2012 when the (City) Council passed a resolution supporting a Constitutional amendment that says corporations are not people and money is not speech,” Neher said. “I already wasn’t planning on taking corporate money for this campaign.”
The third Democratic candidate, John Linnemeier says he also won’t take corporate money. In fact, he goes even further than that. We’ll explain that a little later.
So that’s settled. No corporate contributions to the mayoral candidates this year, at least not these three. But does that actually mean anything? I asked Andy Downs, the director of the Mike Downs Center for Indiana Politics.
“It sounds good to a lot of people,” Downs said. “Because they believe that will remove undue influence from corporations…in Indiana corporations have had a limit on (campaign contributions) for quite some time.
“There are a lot of folks who get around (those regulations) in a fairly easy way. Instead of the corporation making a contribution, an individual who works for the corporation makes a contribution. And contributions from individuals are unlimited.”
Businesses have long been allowed to donate but they been limited to donating $5,000 each to statewide candidates. For a local candidate, like someone running for mayor, a corporation would be limited to $2,000. And as Downs says, there is a giant loophole in both Indiana’s campaign finance law and in the pledge that the mayoral candidates made.
Basically, it’s not a big sacrifice to reject contributions from businesses as long as you can still take money from the people who own and run those businesses.
“In some respects, not accepting contributions from corporations is a bit of a (public relations) ploy,” Downs said.
WFHB asked the three Democratic candidates whether they would be accepting money from business owners. They all say, with different qualifiers, yes. But Linnemeier, who is the only of the three who’s never run for office before, is willing to draw a hard line about exactly which businesspeople can contribute.
“You don’t want to take money from anyone…who is going to be doing business with the city,” Linnemeier said. “That includes the owner of any business. That includes employees of that business.”
Neither Neher or Hamilton are willing to go that far.
Hamilton says he’s open to setting even more limits on fund raising. But he says it would be difficult to meet Linnemeier’s standard. In response to a follow up question from WFHB, Hamilton sent a statement saying it would be hard to monitor contributions closely enough to enforce the rule. Plus, he said “one might accept a contribution tomorrow from an individual who then the next week gets a contract with the city, and it looks funny.”
Neher, on the other hand, says he doesn’t think a blanket ban on donations from businesspeople is a good idea.
“There are a number of even small restaurants that participate with the city of Bloomington,” Neher said. “They’re fundamentally different from businesses from Indianapolis or Chicago that do high-dollar contracts with the city.”
Neher says he won’t take money from business owners with those high-dollar contracts. But he doesn’t draw a clear line about which contracts or which businesses would be too big. He says he’ll make those judgments on a case by case basis.
But for Linnemeier, the pledge not to accept corporate money doesn’t mean much if candidates are still taking money from people who might benefit from having a friend in the mayor’s office.
“That’s a sham, obviously,” Linnemeier said. “That’s exactly what makes people cynical about politics.”
WFHB took a look at campaign finance reports from the 2011 mayoral election, when Hamilton went up against Mayor Kruzan in the Democratic primary. Hamilton lost. He got 40 percent of the vote. In that race, both candidates accepted money from business owners. But Hamilton took no donations from the businesses themselves. Kruzan did.
Corporate money didn’t make up a big percentage of Kruzan’s campaign — just more than fifteen hundred dollars in the months leading up to the primary.
But one of those companies, Greeley and Hansen, has done a good deal of business with the city government. About 18 months after donating $530 to Kruzan’s campaign, that Chicago-based engineering firm got a contract worth three quarters of a million dollars with the city’s Utilities Department.
There are options for getting most of the money out of the city elections. Hamilton says he’d like Bloomington explore the idea of public financing.
“There are cities that have municipal financing that basically matches small donations with other donations from the public,” Hamilton said. “It’s a way to encourage more smaller donations but still be able to finance elections.”
Shortly before our deadline today another candidate filed to run for mayor. John Turnbull is the first Republican to enter the race. We asked Turnbull about his stance on campaign contributions. He says he will accept money from some business owners, but not if he knows they do work for the city.
Turnbull joined the three other candidates in saying he would take no money directly from corporations.
The deadline for candidates to file paperwork for the city elections is Friday.