Sam Allard / Scene
Cleveland City Council on a neighborhood tour in June, 2016.
When Cleveland City Council passed a major increase to caps on campaign contributions last year, Council President Kevin Kelley argued
that the new, higher caps would help out challengers as they built war chests to take on powerful incumbents.
But campaign finance reports for the first half of 2017, filed by six mayoral candidates with the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections, show the opposite. The results are exactly as council and citizen opponents predicted. Mayor Frank Jackson raised $559,367 in the first six months of 2017, an enormous number. It represents roughly 900 percent more than his closest challengers.
Councilman Zack Reed ($57,350), Councilman Jeff Johnson ($55,540), and restaurateur Brandon Chrostowski ($52,697), were all in the same ballpark. Ohio City businessman-patriot Robert Kilo ($43,051), wasn't too far behind. Young buck GOP T-shirt mogul Tony Madalone raised $12,000.
Candidates aren't required to file reports if they raise less than $10,000, which means the balance of the field, including former East Cleveland Mayor Eric Brewer, didn't raise significant funds.
What that also means is that Jackson now has considerably more money on hand for his campaign — at least $300,000 more from 2017 fundraising alone, to say nothing of the contributions he accrued in 2016 — than all of his challengers combined.
The gap is functionally insurmountable. Given Jackson's establishment support, backing from the construction unions, and access to the Marianas-Trenchian pockets of Cleveland's legal, financial and real-estate elites, he was always expected to raise more money than his opponents. But the cap limits have exaggerated an existing divide, fortifying the zombie incumbency and erecting more fully the armature of political futility and malaise on which City Hall's current inhabitants have molded their legacies.
The increase to contribution limits has had immediate and striking effects: Formerly, contributions were capped at $1,000 for an individual and $2,000 for Political Action Committees (PACs). After the increase, individuals were capped at $5,000, while PACs were capped at $7,500. In Kelley's original proposal, the limit would have been $10,000 for everybody, but council agreed to a compromise.
By way of comparison: In the first half of 2013, according to Jackson's campaign finance filing that July, he raised $258,930. He was squaring off against a lesser opponent in the mayoral race, the glazed apricot Ken Lanci, but still received maximum contributions ($1,000) from the region's developer class.
To get around the cap, big donors frequently give from multiple family members. In 2013, for instance, Jackson received $1,000 from Albert Ratner, Audrey Ratner, Brian Ratner, Charles Ratner, James Ratner and Susan Ratner: a total of $6,000.
But look at what happened in 2016, after the new limits were in effect.
At a fundraiser in December, Jackson received checks from Ronald Ratner ($3,333), James Ratner ($3,334), Mark Ratner ($3,333), Brian Ratner ($5,000), and Deborah Ratner Salzburg ($5,000) for a total of $20,000. Then in 2017, Albert, Audrey, Brian and Deborah wrote checks for $5,000 apiece, good for $20,000 more.
In a report this morning
, Ideastream's Nick Castele reported that in 2016, about 23 percent of Jackson’s fundraising came from real estate; 18 percent came from "contributors in the construction business."
Onlookers who opposed the increase can do little but say "we told you so."
Activist Greg Coleridge (whom Scene featured in this year's People Issue
) testified at last year's council hearings about the corrupting influence of money in politics. He told Scene Wednesday that he and others knew this would happen.
"Those with the power to deliver goodies to corporations and wealthy individual campaign investors and those with the ability to access mega dollars from the same crowd always benefit from high political contribution limits," he wrote in an email. "Sometimes it's political challengers who are the big winners of high contribution limits, but most often it's incumbents with the ability to award public assets to private entities who seek returns on their large political investments. This almost always comes at the expense of the vast majority of citizens whose lack of political contributions means a lack of political access and voice."
Coleridge said that Kelley, who introduced the legislation, should have known that things would play out this way:
"He's no political neophyte," wrote Coleridge. "No need to be a political PhD to know that when campaign contribution limits are high, listening to mega donors becomes more a priority than listening to voters."
At last year's testimony, Coleridge predicted the current disparities and reminded council that individual campaign contributions for the U.S. presidential race were capped at $2,700.
"High contribution limits can create the perception that Cleveland politicians are potentially for sale, or at least for rent," Coleridge said in a statement at the time. "[Low-income] Clevelanders can’t conceivably relate to giving a political candidate $100, let alone $10,000. They are trying to do more with less. It would seem appropriate that those who they elect to represent them might want to consider trying to do the same."
But Kevin Kelley maintained Wednesday that it was wrong to assume the disparity in fundraising was a direct result of the new contribution caps.
"Each candidate is subject to the same limits," he wrote Scene in an email. "Therefore, this difference could be an indicator of the quality of the candidates and their ability to gain support. However one feels about fundraising, it is a part of the process that a candidate must be able to do."