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Even with no race to run, mayor makes wide use of campaign fund

Mayor Byron W. Brown isn’t running for election this year, but his campaign fund spent more in the last 12 months than his primary and general election opponents combined in the last Buffalo mayoral race.

The mayor’s campaign fund has raised more than $220,000 and spent $330,000 since Brown began his third four-year term Jan. 1, 2014. At least $250,000 of that spending has occurred in the last six months.

The campaign fund’s biggest expenses include nearly $62,000 to a New York City-based political consultant and $32,100 to a local campaign committee that political consultant Maurice L. Garner helps run.

Lesser amounts went for such things as contributions to other candidates and parties, $23,000; postage, $20,000; polling, $10,000; holiday gifts, $6,200; Thanksgiving meals for the needy, $8,500; and a St. Patrick’s Day brunch, $900.

Brown also spent tens of thousands more on the fundraisers that helped pay for it all.

The spending over the 12 months was the most from the Brown campaign fund in a nonelection year since he became mayor in 2005.

Much of the spending – such as for holiday brunches and gifts, postage for Christmas and birthday cards, and Thanksgiving donations – reflects routine expenditures that his campaign fund incurs every year, Brown said.

But this past year, for the first time, Brown’s campaign worked with consultants on an outreach effort called “I Am Buffalo.”

‘Educate the community’

The campaign included polling and door-to-door canvassing over the summer on the city’s East Side, where there has been concern that residents don’t feel Buffalo’s economic upswing has reached them, Brown said.

When talking with residents, canvassers promoted positive efforts happening in Buffalo while Brown has been mayor and asked residents such questions as how the economic activity affects them and what more they would like to see.

“We wanted to educate the community about the economic development happening and the benefit it will have on the entire city, and we want to hear back from people at the grass-roots levels, at their doors, in their neighborhoods. We wanted to get their feedback on things to do to reach them more,” Brown said.

The results of that canvassing are being used to develop city policy emphasizing the importance of diversity – including all Buffalo neighborhoods – in the workforce as a way to further lift the entire city, Brown said.

“It’s a campaign, but for a public benefit,” Brown said.

The ability of incumbents such as Brown to raise large amounts of money and to liberally distribute campaign funds even in nonelection years are at the heart of a recent movement in Buffalo – and statewide – to consider public financing of elections.

The Common Council last year appointed a committee to come up with a public campaign financing model for Buffalo lawmakers to consider either adopting or, if necessary, putting to a voter referendum. The group is expected to submit a status report in mid-February, but a final proposal is likely still months away.

As part of its research, the group is looking into how public financing works in other cities, including New York, said committee co-chairwoman Megan L. Connelly, with the Partnership for the Public Good, a community organization in Buffalo.

New York City has been publicly financing elections for 25 years, including the 2013 mayoral race when Bill de Blasio was elected. Under the New York City model, candidates get $6 in public money for every $1 contribution of up to $175 from a New York City resident. Contributors can donate more, but only the first $175 is matched, limiting the public match to $1,050 per contribution.

The New York City model also limits how much candidates can spend per race, bans corporate contributions, and limits contributions from individuals working for firms that do business with the city.

The model requires that any unspent public campaign funds be returned to the city. Also, funds raised and spent when a winning candidate takes office – such as the $330,000 Brown spent over the last year – count toward the next election cycle’s spending limit.

The provision is designed to eliminate “war chests,” said Matthew Sollars, a spokesman for the New York City Campaign Finance Board, which oversees the program.

The New York program does not require candidates to opt into the system.

The funds supporting the program come from the city’s general fund budget, Sollars said.

Donates to other candidates

In Buffalo, the impetus for the committee came from North Council Member Joseph Golombek Jr., who said he sees public financing of elections as a way to encourage more people to run for office. He said he suggested the idea because of spending trends he noticed in Common Council races.

In 2011, he said, the four incumbent Council members who faced challenges raised an average of $24,264 each, while their challengers raised an average of $1,117. All incumbents won.

The disparity is stark. But the big money in Buffalo campaigns is in the mayor’s race.

In the 2013 mayoral race, for example, Brown spent $1.5 million. His Democratic primary opponent, Bernard A. Tolbert, raised and spent about $230,000. Brown’s general election opponent, Republican Sergio R. Rodriguez, raised and spent less than $35,000.

When the race ended, Brown still had $400,000 left in his campaign account, and he went on to raise $221,000 more in the last year.

The Brown for Buffalo campaign fund also continued spending all year. The campaign spent $329,600 since Jan. 1, 2014 – including $250,000 in the last six months. With about $273,000 left in his campaign account at the end of the 2014, Brown has another fundraiser planned for this week.

The biggest chunk of money Brown’s campaign spent in 2014 went to Dunton Consulting, a New York City-based political consulting firm that received almost $62,000 for its work on the “I Am Buffalo” outreach campaign.

The mayor said the results of that campaign will be one of the themes of his State of the City message next month.

“I have been talking more and more about diversity and inclusion,” he said.

The $32,100 that Brown’s campaign fund gave to the “Be the Change” campaign committee was also part of the “I Am Buffalo” campaign. “Be the Change” was set up five years ago to support candidates involved with green job growth, said Garner, one of the campaign committee founders. The committee helped send mailers for the “I Am Buffalo” campaign, he said.

Brown’s campaign committee also spent almost $8,500 at Tops Markets in the days leading up to Thanksgiving on holiday meals for the needy.

“We do that every year,” Brown said.

Additionally, almost $6,200 was spent at Reeds/Jenss on Maple Road in Amherst. “We give Christmas gifts as a thank you to our commissioners, directors and other employees and in the community,” Brown said.

Brown’s campaign committee also donated to other campaigns. Among them: $5,500 to Assemblywoman Crystal D. People-Stokes, $5,000 to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and $1,000 to victorious State Senate candidate Marc C. Panepinto.

Brown said that he is not opposed to publicly funded campaigns but that creating a workable model can be challenging. Wealthy candidates, he noted, can opt out of public financing and would not have to adhere to all the public campaign finance rules.

In addition, he said: “Special interest can come in different ways, outside of the rules.” Brown was referring in part to recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions allowing special-interest groups to run their own campaigns, in support of a candidate, without spending limit restrictions.

Council panel studying issue

Brown also expressed concern about the way that campaign funds spent in off years, such as his “I Am Buffalo” expenditures, are handled with public financing. “When you are spending money in a way that has a community benefit beyond just directly to a campaign, to tie that to the cycle of your next allocation of campaign spending though public financing, I think that is problematic,” he said.

City Comptroller Mark J.F. Schroeder, meanwhile, said he looks forward to seeing what the Council committee studying public financing comes up with, but has concerns about using tax dollars to finance political campaigns.

“While I am certainly in favor of reforming our campaign finance system, I am not convinced that funding political campaigns with taxpayer money is the solution,” he said. “Citizens know how campaign money is spent. It is bad enough that they have to endure a barrage of negative television ads every fall. It would add insult to injury if they knew their tax dollars were being used to fund them.”