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Less than 20% of donation money in 2020 city mayoral race came from Baltimoreans, report says

A voter casts a ballot. Less than 20% of the $9.2 million donated to competitive candidates in Baltimore’s 2020 mayoral race came from city residents, a new report from Maryland PIRG Foundation found.
Becky McCray/Flickr
A voter casts a ballot. Less than 20% of the $9.2 million donated to competitive candidates in Baltimore’s 2020 mayoral race came from city residents, a new report from Maryland PIRG Foundation found.

Less than 20% of the $9.2 million donated to competitive candidates in Baltimore’s 2020 mayoral race came from city residents, a new report from Maryland PIRG Foundation found.

According to the left-leaning advocacy group, non-individuals, such as PACs and corporations, had a vast financial role in the election: they accounted for just over 9% of the total number of donations but raised 52% of the money.

About a third of the total money raised came from individuals who live outside of Baltimore, while under one fifth came from city residents.

Overall, 4,886 Baltimoreans — less than 1% of the city’s population — donated to the campaigns. The average contribution from all types of donors was $844; the average contribution from individuals was $455.51. Donations in Maryland are capped at $6,000 for individuals and non-individuals alike.

“When people and corporations that can write these big checks are in the driver's seat, they have an outsized influence on our political system and democracy,” said Rishi Shah, an organizer at Maryland PIRG.

Shah and Emily Scarr, Maryland PIRG’s director, analyzed 10,995 publicly available contributions from Jan. 1, 2019 onward to candidates who received more than 2,000 votes during the Democratic or Republican primary election. Those candidates were Brandon Scott, Sheila Dixon, Mary Miller, Thiru Vignarajah, Bernard C. "Jack" Young, T. J. Smith and Carlmichael "Stokey" Cannady. The analysis also included Bob Wallace, who ran for mayor as an independent and received 20.2% of the general vote.

The data, pulled from the Maryland Campaign Reporting Information system, includes contributions, loans and expenditures from each campaign, as well as donors’ addresses. Contributions from unions and non-profits were included in the analysis, but were not counted as large donations, as they are sometimes aggregations of small contributions from members, Shah said. Bank interest payments, refunds, rebates and transfers were included in the analysis. PIRG did not analyze in-kind contributions.

Top spending and fundraising within the 2020 mayoral race didn’t translate to wins or even double-digit percentages of the primary vote.

Jack Young started the race in the strongest financial position with nearly $1 million in hand in January 2020, but earned only 6% of the Democratic primary vote.

In late April 2020, a month before the Democratic primary, Miller had the most money on hand. The former Obama administration official, who now works as an executive at Johns Hopkins University, loaned her campaign $1.5 million but finished a distant third place in the race.

Scott, who eked out the Democratic primary win over Dixon, raised about $650,000 by late April. He spent most of that money in the final stretch of the primary.

In the weeks leading up to the general election, Scott spent around $150,000, compared to Wallace’s $411,000. Ultimately, the independent failed to eclipse deep-blue Baltimore’s heavy favorite.

Sophia Silbergeld, a partner at the political consulting and public relations firm of Adeo Advocacy, pointed to her “favorite song lyric of all time when it comes to politics and political fundraising.”

“‘Having money is not everything. Not having it is,’ ” she said, quoting Kanye West. “You can have an endless amount of money to spend on your campaign. But if the message or the candidate or both aren't resonating, you still won't win. That being said, you do have to have enough money to get your message out.”

On average, each candidate included in the Maryland PIRG analysis spent more than $1 million during the race. That makes access to big money donors a prerequisite for running a competitive campaign, Shah said.

“As a result, candidates can end up prioritizing these groups, which means that when it comes time to decide what issues to prioritize on the campaign, what sort of votes to make once elected to office, the people that are top of the mind are these big contributors, the people who bankroll your election campaign, the people you may rely on in order to get reelected,” he said.

Shah noted that the average contribution size of $844 is more than the average Baltimorean’s weekly per capita income of $601.

“Most people and organizations that contribute to campaigns aren't representative of the people that actually live in Baltimore City,” he said.

Non-city residents may be tied to Baltimore through education or business, Silbergeld said.

“In executive races, a lot of your bigger donors — the people and organizations and companies giving $500 or more — have city interests. They may be city vendors or a stakeholder in some part of the city, but their address isn't located in the city,” she said.

Shah and Maryland PIRG are advocating for the funding of the Fair Election Fund, which would provide public campaign financing for candidates running for city offices and limit big money’s influence.

This fund already has the approval of both Baltimoreans and some officials: city residents voted overwhelmingly to establish the fund in a 2018 charter amendment, while the city council did the same in a 2019 bill that spelled out the fund’s specifics. In order to officially launch the fund, Mayor Scott must allocate money to the program and the council must establish a commission to oversee it.

The pieces of legislation behind the fund were introduced by Councilman Kristerfer Burnett, a progressive Democrat and former organizer who ran a grassroots campaign in the eighth district.

“When you run that you see firsthand the role that big money plays in shaping who can get their message out there, who gets radio or television time, who has the biggest campaign staff,” he said.

Under Burnett’s 2019 law, candidates who opt to receive financing from the fund must eschew donations greater than $150, as well as money from PACs and corporations. The fund would then match donations on a tiered scale; smaller donations receive a greater match.

Candidates for mayor must raise at least $40,000 or receive donations from 500 individuals to tap into the fund; they can receive up to $1 million in matches.

Those running for comptroller or city council president must raise $15,000 or receive donations from 250 individuals to tap into the fund; they can receive up to $500,000 in matches. City council candidates must receive donations from 150 individuals or raise $5,000 to tap into the fund; they may receive up to $125,000 in matches.

The program also includes boosts — an influx of cash given to each campaign when they hit the required metrics to opt into the campaign that are separate from matches. Eligible mayoral candidates will get $200,000 and comptroller or city council president candidates will get $50,000. City council candidates will not receive boosts.

The boosts are designed to ensure that eligible candidates can hit the ground running and immediately become viable, Burnett said.

Shah of PIRG said the fund’s amplification of small donor dollars would bolster city residents’ role in elections by giving them an incentive to donate, which would in turn increase candidates’ outreach to small donors.

“Fundamentally, it's an investment in our democracy,” he said.

Silbergeld noted that the city electorate usually taps someone who has already held office, such as a council president or council member, for mayor. Such candidates tend to have strong backing from the Democratic scene.

“It would be interesting to see if [the fund] results in someone who has not previously held office in the city running successfully,” she said. “The first cycle that this is in effect, we will see at least one candidate who is a serious, viable candidate utilize the public financing mechanism.”

The fund’s cost to taxpayers would depend on how many candidates choose to enroll in it. Pushing for the money to fill it is difficult, Burnett acknowledged: “Obviously we're talking about an investment into something that isn't really COVID related or a pandemic response.”

He said he’s currently negotiating with the Scott administration to work the fund into the next budget cycle.

Emily Sullivan is a city hall reporter at WYPR, where she covers all things Baltimore politics. She joined WYPR after reporting for NPR’s national airwaves. There, she was a reporter for NPR’s news desk, business desk and presidential conflicts of interest team. Sullivan won a national Edward R. Murrow Award for an investigation into a Trump golf course's finances alongside members of the Embedded team. She has also won awards from the Chesapeake Associated Press Broadcasters Association for her use of sound and feature stories. She has provided news analysis on 1A, The Takeaway, Here & Now and All Things Considered.