An off-year for City Council elections and a global pandemic led to an off-year for political contributions, 2020 campaign finance reports show.
Throughout 2020, elected officials brought in just $1.2 million in campaign cash while spending about another million on consultants and other political costs. With the council elections still years away, overall activity was muted when compared to more competitive years like 2019, when Council members raised nearly double that sum ahead of competitive campaigns. Campaign finance reports show most members raised less than $50,000 and Council President Darrell Clarke, a one-time mayoral hopeful and among the most powerful in the legislative body, raised nothing at all.
While the pandemic might be to blame, some were able to buck the trend. These include indicted Councilmember Bobby Henon, who outraised and outspent all of his colleagues. Though a number of councilmembers have signaled their interest in succeeding Mayor Jim Kenney in 2024, City Controller and fellow mayoral prospect Rebecca Rhynhart outraised them all.
Mustafa Rashed, president of political consultancy Bellevue Strategies, said pandemic-era restrictions bruised campaign fundraising efforts generally, as awkward Zoom calls replaced the political ritual of hobnobbing and check writing in crowded banquet halls.
“For the first quarter and second quarter of last year, fundraising was impossible if not distasteful,” Rashed said. “You had to figure out how to tactfully ask for money during a pandemic.”
Embattled councilmember benefits from PAC
One Councilmember who seemed to do just that was Bobby Henon, who faces federal corruption charges after federal prosecutors indicted him in 2019.
Henon raised $250,000 last year. Unions accounted for the biggest chunk of this largesse, including $24,600 from the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 98.
The councilmember was hit with the federal indictment along with Local 98 head John Dougherty for allegedly abusing his elected position to advantage the union.
Prosecutors charge Dougherty and Henon engaged in a quid pro quo agreement that resulted in tens of thousands of dollars going to the Councilmember in exchange for actions that favored the union.
For example, Henon allegedly used the city’s Department of Licenses and Inspections to halt the installation of MRI equipment at the Children’s Hospital of Pennsylvania, which had hired a non-union contractor to do the work.
In 2020, the embattled councilmember benefited from $60,000 transferred from a little-known political action committee he controls, called “Henon for the Northeast.” That organization appears to have been funded exclusively by several large donations from unions like IBEW and the Bricklayers union, in 2019, the same year Henon was indicted.
Adam Bonin, a campaign lawyer for Henon, explained that the councilmember had created a specialized “non-campaign committee” in order to accept donations above the city’s campaign finance limits, under the condition that these dollars were not used for reelection purposes.
The lawyer said the money was raised with the intent of being used for constituent service and remain segregated from his other campaign dollars.
“It was an avenue to raise funds not covered by the city’s limits but not to be spent for his own elections,” Bonin said. “He wanted to have this as an available option to further his community work.”
Henon started a separate legal defense fund last year, but Bonin said Henon could, in theory, also tap the funds raised through “Henon for the Northeast” to cover attorneys’ costs in his forthcoming criminal trial.
“As a general matter, a candidate can, to the extent that legal expenses are incurred or arise from his conduct in an election,” Bonin said. Portions of Henon’s indictment describe actions Henon allegedly took during his 2015 reelection campaign and subsequent campaign fundraisers.
Gauthier and Green attract support in tough year
As is usual in Philadelphia, unions gave generously across the board. Labor groups accounted for at least $337,000 of all contributions, or about a third of all money donated to councilmembers last year. Notably, contributions from real estate development interests, once a strong source of campaign funding, were down from prior years.
But there is perhaps more to be said about what was not raised. Leadership, like Majority Whip Curtis Jones or Council President Clarke raised little. In Clarke’s case, nothing at all.
Public affairs consultant Larry Ceisler said this could be a sign of impending retirements or yet another byproduct of the pandemic.
“Clarke might feel there’s no reason to raise money at this point,” he said. “It gives you a window into his thinking. Either he’s not seeking reelection again or he’s laser focused on huge challenges facing the city due to COVID.”
Council lobbyist John Hawkins said that some councilmembers deserved praise for raising noticeable sums at all during a pandemic.
“I am impressed by some that clearly hustled, like Derek Green and Jamie Gauthier, because it’s hard to get donors to give when they can’t see the official in person,” Hawkins said. “Fundraising [Zoom calls] get really monotonous and awkward very quickly. But 2023 is getting closer and in-person events still seem to be months away from happening.”
Who is readying for a mayoral run?
Although Kenney –– once an at-large council member himself –– is in office until 2024, speculation about possible successors from Council was already rife last year. A string of City Council members are being floated as possible successors: Cindy Bass, Alan Domb, Derek Green, Cherelle Parker, and María Quiñones-Sánchez. Henon, too, expressed interest in a mayoral run, but his political future is, for now, linked to the outcome of his May trial.
Early fundraising hauls have historically been used to show some candidates are more viable contenders than others and to demonstrate breadth of potential political support. Philadelphia’s tougher-than-average annual fundraising limits also mean that current elected officials are well advised to bank campaign cash years ahead of time.
“I think anyone serious about running for mayor would be very aggressive at this point,” Ceisler said. “Once they announce their intention, they have to resign.”
The problem: No one on council brought in truly impressive sums.
The next biggest earner after Henon was Councilmember Allan Domb. The downtown real estate mogul has been talked up as a challenger and is on a tried-and-true path of raising his public profile as a potential future mayor by positioning himself as a critic of the current mayor –– lambasting Kenney for his failure to activate Lincoln Financial Field as a vaccination center, to cite one recent instance.
But even he raised only $160,000, a chunk of which came out of his own pocket. Domb currently lists $209,000 he has personally loaned his campaign over the years that has never been repaid, including about $11,000 last March.
“I don’t think we did any real fundraising until December, because of the pandemic,” Domb explained. “But people were very generous and supportive and very nice. I didn’t feel comfortable asking during the pandemic and presidential election.”
Green also raised nearly that amount, and agreed it was no easy task. He said his campaign staged a virtual DJ battle along with Montgomery County Commissioner Ken Lawrence Jr. in an effort to break up dry fundraising Zoom calls.
“We’re used to meeting people in person, so we tried to do something creatively,” Green said, noting that he won the battle. “That’s the kind of thing you have to do in 2020, where you have this unfortunate year where so many people lost their lives, lost their job or lost their company. So we tried to have a little fun in a very challenging year.”
But others potentially eying a mayoral run raised significantly less, ahead of a contest which has seen millions raised and spent in the past. And only one Councilmember –– 11-termer Brian O’Neill –– had more than $150,000 cash on hand, owing to a massive war-chest the sole remaining Republican district councilman has built up over the years as a talisman to ward off would-be challengers.
Still, there is ample time for yet-unknown “Super PACs” to emerge and back a candidacy with outside money as was seen in the 2015 mayoral election or the 2017 District Attorney’s race. But one local elected official has been noticeably busy raising money in the meantime: City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart.
Rhynhart has also been talked up as a mayoral contender and pulled in nearly $340,000 in 2020, ending the year with over $539,000 in the bank. Many of the larger donations came from a mix of labor unions and real estate interests.
Unlike Council, Rhynhart does face reelection this year, but it’s currently unclear if she will even face a challenger. Like Domb, she has also sought to position herself against the mayor –– releasing parallel audits of the mayor’s handling of protests last year, for example.
“People are giving to her not just because she’s the controller. They’re giving to Rebecca because they obviously see something in her,” Ceisler said. “That number is very impressive…that’s a lot of money for a controller.”
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