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By Aaron Keck

Money Makes The Vote Go ‘Round, But Less So In Chapel Hill

By Aaron Keck Posted November 8, 2013 at 2:38 am

Working for WCHL, I get paid* to keep my attention focused on Orange County—but every time I happen to look outside, I find myself reminded just how good we have it here.

Case in point: campaign spending.

Every election cycle, it seems, we always have the prerequisite bit of handwringing over the insidious creep of money into our little democracy. Four years ago it was Matt Czajkowski outspending Mark Kleinschmidt; two years ago it was Lee Storrow pulling donations from non-Chapel Hillians or Jon DeHart taking money from developers; this year it was the NCGA cancelling “voter-owned elections.” Campaign spending was lower in 2013 than 2011, but even so you still ended up with one candidate, George Cianciolo, who raised around $10,000. Ten thousand dollars was sort of a magic hand-wringy number back in 2011, when three Council candidates topped it. Less handwringing this year, but that only goes to prove that $10,000 is becoming the norm.

Money money money money money money money!

Amirite?

Well, maybe. Ten thousand dollars sure is a lot to drop on a Council seat. Chapel Hill’s an affluent town, but even so, there aren’t many of us with that much loose change. Sure, it’s mostly donations, but that still means you need the free time to go around soliciting donors—and you also need to be well-connected enough to know the donors first. Once it starts costing $10,000 to run for Council, that rules out most everybody in town. You’ll end up with the power elite.

That’s concerning—but it’s not all bad either. If you have to raise $10,000 for a Council seat, it does severely limit the pool of possible candidates—but then again, raising ten grand also signals that you’re a committed candidate who’s good enough to draw support from a wide range of people. (Provided there are loophole-free limits on individual donations, of course. Little things.)

But all that aside—

Is ten thousand really that big a deal?

Take Lansing. Lansing, Michigan, is my hometown, with a population of about 110,000 and a mayor named Virg Bernero. You may know Virg if you listen to Ed Schultz on WCHL; he’s the go-to guest when Ed wants to rip on Michigan’s union-busting Republican governor.

But here’s the upshot. Bernero just ran for reelection in 2013. His only opponent on the ballot was a former City Councilman named Harold Leeman, a nice guy whose primary motivation for running was simply to give voters a viable choice. Leeman campaigned lightly: in an interview with the local paper just before the election, he even admitted (in so many words) that he had no real chance of winning.

This was Virg Bernero’s only opponent.

And Virg Bernero went out and raised A HUNDRED THOUSAND DOLLARS.

More than $110,000, in fact. (Here’s the data.) $110,000 equates to one dollar for each Lansing resident. To put it in Chapel Hill terms, that’d be the equivalent of Mark Kleinschmidt raising $60,000 to beat Tom Henkel.

And what did Virg Bernero get for his trouble?

Less than ten thousand votes.

9,863 votes, to be precise. (Here’s the data.) Leeman finished exactly six thousand votes behind. Turnout was extremely low in Lansing too, as it turned out–so when all was said and done, Bernero raised about ten dollars for every vote he got. Meanwhile in Chapel Hill, Kleinschmidt received 4,165 votes, almost half Bernero’s total, spending almost no money at all. (I can’t be sure, but I think Henkel’s supporters may have actually outspent him.)

And Bernero’s fundraising bonanza is only the tip of the iceberg. Down in Alabama they just spent millions—millions!—to choose the Republican candidate for a U.S. House seat. That’s just a primary, mind you; the general election is still a month away. And while that race was an outlier—it was a Tea Partier taking on a traditional business conservative, so money came pouring in from all over—it’s still a good illustration of just how pricey these things can get.

So whenever we lament the rising cost of electoral politics in Orange County, it’s well to remember (if only to feel a little better about the way things are) that we still have it pretty good around here, all things considered.

Relatively, at least.

* No footnote. I just felt like that needed an asterisk.

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