Most of the cash raised in DA’s race exceeds city donor limits

     George Soros' $1.45 million was more than one-fourth of all the spending in the Philadelphia district attorney's race. (Olivier Hoslet, Pool Photo via AP)

    George Soros' $1.45 million was more than one-fourth of all the spending in the Philadelphia district attorney's race. (Olivier Hoslet, Pool Photo via AP)

    Of the $5.3 million candidates and political committees spent on Tuesday’s Democratic primary for Philadelphia district attorney, more than $3.1 million — or 59 percent — was raised outside the city’s campaign contribution limits.

    The money raised outside the limits include $1.45 million from billionaire George Soros in support of winning candidate Larry Krasner; $250,000 from the labor-funded super PAC Build a Better Pa in support of Jack O’Neill; and self-funding by candidates themselves, mostly the $1.25 million Michael Untermeyer committed to his own campaign (see chart below).

    Asked about the pattern Thursday, Mayor Jim Kenney said outside money in local campaigns is the result of U.S. Supreme Court rulings, including Citizens United.

    “It’s federal law, and it applies to everybody,” Kenney said. “It’s unfortunate, but it is what it is, and, until the Supreme Court does something different, it’s going to be this way.”

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    The numbers come from my analysis of campaign finance reports, including dozens of 24-hour reports required of candidates who raise significant cash in the closing days of the race. The figures will move some when final reports come in, but not much.

    So are contribution limits meaningless?

    No. It’s interesting that a similar pattern prevailed in the mayor’s race two years ago, when about two-thirds of the spending came from super PACs that could accept unlimited contributions.

    But there’s evidence that the contribution limits and other steps taken by the city Ethics Board have helped to clean up city elections.

    When City Council approved the limits in 2003, the idea was to limit the influence special interests exercise in our elections and, by extension, on our public officials.

    And when you look at the money that came into the mayor’s race and the DA’s race from the traditional pay-to-play interest groups — law firms, insurance companies, developers, and (some would say) unions — most aren’t writing big checks anymore.

    The biggest players in the mayor’s race and the DA’s race were ideologically motivated. In the mayor’s race, three rich pro-charter school guys backed Anthony Williams; in the DA’s race, it was Soros, who’s seeking policy change in criminal justice, not contracts or favors.

    Unions were big contributors to super PACs in the mayor’s race, and $250,000 in leftover money from one of them went to candidate Jack O’Neill (who finished sixth).

    Then there were wealthy or well-off candidates writing checks to their own campaigns.

    The self-funding, which amounted to more than $1.4 million, is also different from traditional pay-to-pay campaign financing. And, in any case, it’s protected by court decisions before Citizens United.

    But none of that is any comfort to candidates who tried to fund their campaigns within the limits.

    Doing it the hard way

    Consider the case of former prosecutor Joe Khan.

    He was the first to enter the race, announcing in September when incumbent Seth Williams hadn’t yet been charged with a crime and was still in the race.

    Khan worked the phones and raised $774,000, one contribution at a time, within the city’s limits.

    He raised more than twice as much as the winner Krasner, who got in months later and was propelled by Soros’ gift from above.

    Khan told me he always understood an independent spending campaign was a possibility, but it wasn’t easy to see Soros’ money come in and change the campaign.

    “I thought it was disturbing that a Philadelphia election could be so influenced by outside groups unconnected to the candidates themselves,” Khan said.

    Khan was also attacked in TV ads by Untermeyer, a successful real-estate developer who tapped his own fortune for $1.25 million, four-fifths of his campaign fund.

    Khan did put $74,000 of his own into his campaign, but that was less than 9 percent of his campaign. He finished second with about 20 percent of the vote.

    In third was Rich Negrin, who raised $584,000 entirely within the city’s campaign limits.

    Money isn’t the only factor in a campaign, and Krasner might have won without the Soros money. But the huge TV buys and direct mail campaign helped spread his name, and they gave his candidacy more credibility with donors and other politicians at a critical time in the campaign.

    I also have to note that, since outside spending appeared in city races, the Ethics Board has imposed tougher and more frequent reporting requirements. It’s restricted independent groups’ use of candidates’ campaign images and other material, so outside spending is truly independent.

    Not-so-trivial trivia

    It’s a little-known fact among those who’ve followed the race that Soros’ $1.45 million spending effort for Krasner would be legal in Pennsylvania even if there were no Citizens United decision.

    Pennsylvania has no limit on campaign contributions or spending, so the Soros’ operation registered here as a plain vanilla political committee under state law, rather than a super PAC.

    As long as the Soros committee didn’t coordinate with Krasner’s campaign, it could accept checks of any size and spend its money as it pleased.

    I think the Soros intervention in Philly is connected to Citizens United in that interest and advocacy groups are now in the habit of funding independent expenditure efforts to influence races at every level.

    It just happens to be easier in Pennsylvania, and that will be true until the state Legislature decides it should change — no sign of that at the moment.

    It’s also fair to note that rich people running self-funded  campaigns is nothing new, and those who do it don’t always win.

    Teresa Carr Deni put $130,000 of her own money into her campaign for DA, finishing dead last and paying about $58 per vote.

    But she got better value than Untermeyer, who finished fifth with 8 percent after investing $1.25 million. He ended up paying just over $100 per vote.

    WHYY’s Tom MacDonald contributed to this story.


    Funds spent in Democratic DA primary — Spring 2017



    raised outside cont. limits

    Raised within cont. limits

    % Outside cont. limits




































    Soros PAC





    Bld Better Pa










    Chart shows funds spent by candidates and independent committees in DA’s race (source: campaign finance reports filed with Philadelphia Board of Ethics).

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