Who did — and didn’t fund Philly’s super PACs

Philadelphia's City Hall Tower (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Philadelphia's City Hall Tower (Emma Lee/WHYY)

In this mayor’s race, when the door was open to big money, unions and some wealthy school choice advocates came to play. But the city’s traditional special interests – law firms, insurance brokers and developers – stayed home.

Editor’s note: A version of this story originally ran on Monday, May 11, 2015.

By now, it’s not a shock to learn that super PACs spent twice as much as the candidates in the Philadelphia mayor’s race this year, according to campaign finance reports filed last Friday. (See my earlier report here.) 

And if you follow this stuff you know the U.S. Supreme court has opened the floodgates of spending from independent expenditure committees, which can ignore contribution limits as long as they don’t coordinate with candidates they’re supporting.

But there’s something interesting in who did, and didn’t fund super PACs in the mayor’s race this year.

Turn the calendar back a couple of decades, when there were no limits on contributions in city races (there are still none in the rest of Pennsylvania), and you saw big contributions — $25,000, $50,000 and more to mayoral candidates.

Sometimes they came from rich friends of the candidates, but mostly, big checks came from people and institutions who had an interest in city policy or contracts, and wanted to be players: law firms, insurance companies, developers, and unions.

What’s striking to me is that in this mayor’s race, when the door was open to big money, only the unions came to play. The law firms, insurance brokers and developers stayed home.

The reports tell the story

Three super PAC’s played a significant role in this race. Two of them, Building a Better Pa and Forward Philadelphia raised just under $2.3 million to support former City Councilman Jim Kenney, practically all of it huge contributions from the building trades and public employee unions.

The other super PAC, American Cities, raised $6.8 million to support State Sen. Anthony Williams, and 97 percent of that came from three men, all partners in the Bala Cynwyd-based trading firm, the Susquehanna International Group.

I’m personally convinced the Susquehanna boys are motivated by ideological commitment, not financial self-interest. They honestly believe in educational alternatives for kids in struggling schools, and think funding Williams’ political campaigns are the right vehicle.

There are some disturbing things about three rich donors accounting for more than half of all the spending the mayor’s race, and I’ll have more to say about that in another piece.

My point today is that this free-spending PAC doesn’t represent the return of the special interests who used to fund mayoral campaigns in this town. It’s almost a freak of political nature — three guys with money to burn and a passionate commitment to one issue.

Where are the old guard?

So why didn’t the old special interests put their money into super PACs this year?.

One reason: Starting a super PAC is a lot of effort. Giving a big check to a candidate in the good ole’ days was costly, but it was simple. You gave him 50 grand and that was it.

But to help your candidate with an independent expenditure committee, you have to essentially build a campaign apparatus yourself. You have find somebody you trust to manage it, do polling, craft a message, make commercials, buy TV time, the works.

And you have to think strategically about what will best help your candidate win. If it means going negative, you have to consider the effect on your reputation (something I think has kept the Susquehanna super PAC from going negative on Jim Kenney).

So if you’re Ballard Spahr or Dilworth Paxon, starting a super PAC may be more than you want to take on.

Another reason: I’m just guessing here, but it may be that the law firms and developers are relieved they don’t have to be making huge donations, and aren’t so anxious to find ways around contribution limits.

Back in the day, a candidate might call the managing partner of law firm A and say how important his support was. When the conversation got around to numbers, the candidate would mention that law firm B was in for $75,000. Did the manager of firm A want to be left out in the cold.? No. He wrote the check.

In 2015 it’s illegal for a candidate to take a $75,000 check from firm A, and it’s illegal for him to ask the managing partner to give 75 grand to a super PAC that’s supporting him. So if the candidate doesn’t ask, and it would be big and risky project to start its own super PAC, the law firm just waits and watches.

The firm could give $75,000 to somebody else’s super PAC that’s helping a candidate, but we aren’t seeing that in this race. Power lawyer Steve Cozen did give American Cities $10,000, but it stands out as an exception.

Here’s what I think will happen in the next competitive mayor’s race if the rules don’t change:

Philadelphia candidates will start doing what presidential candidates do. They strip away all pretense, and when they start running for the office, a bunch of their loyal friends start a super PAC that everybody understands is the candidate’s vehicle.

And when those friends ask law firms A and B for a big check, it’s will be understood that if you aren’t in, the candidate will know — and remember.

I’d just as soon not be right about this. We’ll see.

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