City Council race was Hub's most costly ever
By Andrea Estes, Globe Staff, 1/22/2004
In a race fueled by big political names and fund-raising machines, Boston's at-large City Council candidates raised more than $1 million in last fall's campaign, making it the most expensive in city history, according to campaign finance reports filed this week.
Council President Michael F. Flaherty, who topped the ticket, set a new record for fund-raising, collecting $387,652 in donations during 2003 while spending $403,672 -- more than twice the next-biggest spender.
Patricia H. White, daughter of former mayor Kevin H. White, spent $201,953 in a campaign noted for being heavy on fund-raising, often from former allies and friends of her father's.
With Flaherty and White setting the pace, other candidates said they raised more and spent more as they tried to keep up.
"You had a dynamic in the race this time where you had people raising hundreds of thousands of dollars," said Councilor at Large Maura A. Hennigan, who came in third after spending $105,583, the least of the winning candidates. That number includes $15,000 that she loaned her campaign. "What it's done is raised the bar, not only for the past race, but for the future. I raised only $88,000. When you consider the votes I got, I'm gratified."
The level of spending in the 2003 council race underscores that the cost of running a campaign for city office is soaring, pricing some potential candidates out of contention, election watchdogs said.
"It's part of a trend in Massachusetts and nationally," said George Pillsbury, senior analyst for the Massachusetts Money and Politics Project. "The costs of municipal elections are skyrocketing. It used to apply only to mayor, but now we see it in at-large and district council seats. There is very much a perception that money wins elections. It's not always true, but 90 percent of the time it is. It puts candidates in an arms race for fund-raising. This arms race, like the others, is escalating."
The biggest spenders didn't always get the most votes, however. Though Flaherty finished first, White lost. Councilor at Large Stephen J. Murphy only narrowly got a fourth-place win, despite spending $162,000, more than all but two of the eight candidates. He raised $215,000. Incumbent Councilor at Large Felix D. Arroyo placed second, though he spent $150,679, the fourth highest amount. He raised $152,744.
Flaherty, who has not hidden his mayoral ambitions, last year raised money at a furious pace, even though he was considered a sure winner in the council race. Many speculated that his campaign was meant to win name recognition for a potential mayoral run in the future.
"Campaigns are expensive and getting more costly every year," Flaherty said yesterday. "I just worried about myself and made sure that I had enough money available not only to wage a successful campaign but to contribute to charitable causes."
Said Arroyo: "We thought in order to be competitive we needed to spend a significant amount of money, and we did. What I feel more proud of is that a lot of working people donated to my campaign. I'm proud of that and feel humbled by that."
Former city councilor Michael McCormack, who said he spent $250,000 running for council in the early 1980s, said that to stay competitive, candidates must raise a lot of cash even if they don't accept donations from lobbyists or special interest groups.
"It's become very expensive to run for elective office, if you want to make a credible showing," he said. "But Felix demonstrated that you don't have to raise money from real estate developers or the well-heeled business community. You can raise it in small donations."
Other big cities have experimented with public financing of municipal elections, Pillsbury said. New York City and Los Angeles provide matching funds with strict spending limits.
"It has allowed a lot of people to run competitive campaigns," Pillsbury said. "Average citizens can run for city council where costs otherwise would be too high."
Globe correspondent Kevin Joy contributed to this report.
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