Waiting for the mayoral ad wars

    It’s March 8th. Do you know who your Philadelphia mayoral candidates are?

    Most voters don’t, because the candidates aren’t yet on the airwaves or in your mailboxes with campaign material.

    A lot of political junkies in this town are a little surprised, and wondering when that will change.

    The answer: when the outside money people who aren’t bothered by city campaign finance limits decide it’s time.

    Fighting the last war

    At this point a year ago, when Tom Wolf was part of a crowded field of Pennsylvania Democratic gubernatorial candidates, he’d already been on the air with beautifully-produced spots in major TV buys for over a month.

    The fact that Wolf’s ads ran for weeks when winter weather kept voters inside and his rivals were largely silent transformed the Democratic primary.

    By the time the other candidates started to run ads, Wolf had built such a lead that the race was never close (Katie McGinty was actually on TV first, but lacked the cash for a major effort).

    Why isn’t a Philadelphia mayoral candidate copying that strategy? In short, because it would cost a fortune.

    Wolf had the personal wealth to buy all the ad time he needed, and the candidates in the mayors race so far are underfunded.

    But some have friends who aren’t.

    The Superpack

    The city’s campaign finance law limits contributions to candidates, but thanks to federal court rulings (and Pennsylvania’s backward election laws) there’s no restriction on what corporations, unions, or wealthy individuals can spend to support or trash candidates of they choose to.

    So if anyone has the resources to build an early lead with heavy advertising, it’s those who are planning “independent expenditures” in the race.

    So far it’s clear three Bala Cynwyd-based financial executives are planning a major effort to support State Sen. Anthony Williams, and an effort of some kind is taking shape on behalf of former City Councilman Jim Kenney.

    There’s no sign yet that any of the other candidates will have rich friends swinging clubs for them in the coming rumble.

    If either Williams’ or Kenney’s campaign would like their rich allies to “pull a Wolf” and seize the airwaves with an early heavy ad buy, the rules don’t allow them to ask for such a move.

    Candidates and independent expenditure committees aren’t allowed to coordinate activities in any way, and the city Ethics Board has its antenna up. You may think they there’s nothing they can do, but this board has shown itself to be tough and resourceful in the past.

    So while we wait for the big money to enter the paid media market, I’m kind of enjoying seeing the candidates test themselves and each other in forums and debates.

    There’s probably one coming soon at a time and place convenient to you. I’d suggest you see the contenders as they are, while you can.

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