The mayors of some of Connecticut’s largest towns are hoping to ride their political connections into the state’s highest office. One obvious way to do that is to court campaign donations. But politicians running for election in 2018 need to be savvy enough to raise that money quickly, and to raise it right -- stockpiling tiny contributions from all over Connecticut -- in the hopes of unlocking a multi-million dollar prize: public financing.
“What all the candidates are doing early on, is using their money to make more money,” said Doug Spencer, a professor of law and public policy at the University of Connecticut. “What gets lost, sometimes, is the difference between the amount of money you have in the bank and how much money is going to qualify you to get the public grants.”
Spencer is treasurer for Christopher Mattei, a former Democratic gubernatorial candidate who is now running for attorney general. The public grant he’s talking about is the Citizens’ Election Program (CEP), which provides money to qualifying candidates running for office.
It’s a prize many in this year’s crowded gubernatorial field are vying for -- public funding of $1.25 million for primary races and $6 million for the general election.
But the road isn’t easy. To access CEP money, candidates for governor have to raise $250,000 in individual contributions of no less than $5 and no more than $100. Ninety percent of that money needs to come from in-state residents.
“All the money is coming out of Hartford and then moving southwest,” Spencer said.
WNPR mapped those political contributions and what emerges is a familiar, if intriguing pattern -- a hodgepodge of gifts, many from retirees and attorneys, snaking its way down the state’s major thoroughfares, through New York City and even into Washington D.C.
Let’s start with Shelton mayor Mark Lauretti. Bill Evans, campaign manager for the Republican candidate, said Lauretti surpassed the $250,000 qualifying mark in October.
“Most of this money was raised at events.” Evans said. “Cocktail parties. Dinner parties. Your typical political fundraiser.”
Evans suggested Lauretti could even draw bipartisan support. “The fundraiser that put Mark [Lauretti] over the $250,000 threshold was hosted by the Democratic mayor of Naugatuck,” Evans said.
According to Jan. 10 filings, Lauretti raised $277,810 in contributions. Overall, nearly $70,000 came from his hometown of Shelton.
Danbury Mayor Mark Boughton is taking a similar homegrown approach. As of Jan. 10, about a third of his approximately $272,000 in total contributions came from Danbury.
“We really worked on friends, neighbors and relatives,” Boughton said. “It’s phone calls, it’s people going out asking friends to go to the website and donate. It’s events … ballpark -- we probably did 50 house parties over the last summer. Pretty much there was an event every other night.”
Shoe leather fundraising isn’t uncommon. And for connected politicians, one political shindig can quickly cascade into another.
“You go to one fundraiser and somebody says, ‘Gee I’d like to have one of these at my house,’” said Liz Kurantowicz, a Republican analyst and former finance director for M. Jodi Rell’s successful campaign for governor in 2006.
“For candidates who have held elected office, or run for office before, they certainly have an advantage,” Kurantowicz said. “They know the system. They know people.”
And, hopefully, they know how to manage campaign money. Kurantowicz, who has since lectured on fundraising in Washington D.C. and Connecticut, said, “when I teach fundraising courses, I always try and tell people you want to try and keep your fundraising expenses around 15 or 18 percent.”
In other words, don’t spend all your cash in one place.
“That just shows you the health of the campaign, if they spent all their money, then they’re in trouble,” said UConn’s Doug Spencer, referencing the failed campaign of Middletown Mayor Dan Drew, who rapidly burned his campaign war chest on political consultants before suspending his bid for governor in January.
In Hartford, Democratic Mayor Luke Bronin got in the race for governor much later than Boughton and Lauretti.
That means, so far, he’s posted the lowest fundraising total among sitting mayors around $113,000. Only slightly more than half of those contributions were CEP qualifying. But on its latest filing, Bronin’s exploratory committee appears to be quickly saving up: it already had banked more than $100,000.
“So his strategy was different - I presume,” said Spencer. “It was to post as big a number as he could in a short amount of time. He raised more money from out of state -- and he raised more large contributions.”
As of the latest filings, Bronin posted nearly $16,000 in contributions from Greenwich. He also got more money, in total, from West Hartford and New York City, than he did from Hartford.
“It may mean that he doesn’t have grassroots support, or it could just mean that he’s trying to post a big number,” Spencer said. “It’s hard to know really what to make of it until we see his next filing on April 10.”
The Bronin campaign declined a request for an interview. But in an email, a spokesperson said Bronin “intends to qualify for the Citizens' Election Program and is working to reach that goal.”
Then there’s Bridgeport Mayor Joe Ganim, who served time in federal prison after a corruption conviction stemming from his time as mayor of Connecticut’s largest city.
In November, a federal judge barred Ganim from public financing, upholding a state law denying public campaign funds to felons convicted of public corruption.
“For Joe Ganim, I don’t know,” Spencer said. “He’s not eligible for the grant, so I don’t what his strategy is.”
In the latest SEEC filings, Ganim posted an overall total of $203,909 raised.
Figuring out how much he has in the bank is trickier. That’s because Ganim’s campaign closed out its exploratory committee and opened a new candidate committee right around the Jan. 10 filing deadline. State law gives campaigns a window to transfer funds from one committee to the other, but paperwork won’t be filed until April 10.
The Ganim campaign declined a request for an interview, but did confirm it is still raising money.
Of Ganim’s total contributions, SEEC data shows about $57,000 was raised in Bridgeport, with nearly 300 contributors, or about 20 percent, listing “City of Bridgeport” as their employer. For comparison, other mayoral candidates were between about 0.8 percent and 2.5 percent for their respective cities.
State law bars municipal employees from soliciting donations from subordinates, but any worker can, under their own direction, freely contribute to a candidate.
Republican analyst Liz Kurantowicz said for candidates who do meet the CEP fundraising threshold, the next step is qualifying to be on the ballot. That involves wooing 15 percent of delegates at upcoming party conventions or collecting two percent of the signatures of registered party voters.
That’s about 15,000 signatures for Democrats and around 9,000 for Republicans, according to the secretary of the state’s office.
“They don’t get their funds from elections enforcement until they qualify to be on the ballot in the primary,” Kurantowicz said.
And in this year’s crowded election field, Kurantowicz said that means demonstrating that a campaign is financially solvent -- and able to mobilize supporters rapidly -- is all the more critical.
“When these candidates are going into public financing, they’re all sort of equal,” said Kurantowicz, adding the big question now is how quickly did the candidates raise their money, “and how much money did they spend to get there?”