Who really funds municipal campaigns anyway? Looking back at the 2009 St. John’s municipal election

ST JOHN’S – Ever wonder how much money goes into a municipal campaign? In St. John’s municipal election last September the 32 candidates vying for 11 positions claimed a combined total of $303,098 in campaign contributions.

Candidates had until Dec 31st 2009 to submit a campaign contribution and expenses disclosure form. On this form, each candidate must claim the total amount they received in donations, and list the names of all contributors over $250.

As an inquisitive mind, and a former candidate in the election, I was curious how much my competitors raised in donations during the campaign. After calling the City, and waiting several weeks, I received a package including the photocopied original campaign contribution and expense forms from each candidate. This was awful nice of the City, especially considering it was free, but photocopies are not the most useable forms of information. I spent several hours plugging all of the information into excel, so that it could be manipulated to find out something more interesting then who has the worst handwriting (which, if I had to choose, would be current Mayor Dennis O’Keefe).

After plugging in all of the information it became much easier to sort through, to find multiple contributors, amounts of donations, and where the money was coming from. The excel files are available on The Scope’s website, along with some further analysis by yours truly if you’re interested.

I found it interesting the sheer number of companies which donated money to candidates during the last election. Many of the companies’ names are ambiguous, but after googling a few, a trend emerged. A great deal of the companies which made contributions to candidates are what I would describe as “development-related.” This includes construction companies, contractors, engineering firms, real-estate companies, and developers.

Another interesting thing about many of these companies is that they are not located in St. John’s, or even, in some cases, Newfoundland. For example, Southwest Properties, of Halifax, made donations to 5 different candidates (4 of whom are currently on council). I will not attempt to speculate why a company from Halifax would donate money to a municipal campaign in another province, but I do find it interesting.

The single largest donor during the campaign was Fairview Investments, who donated a total of $9,700 to 9 candidates (6 of whom are currently on council). Fairview Investments was so generous that they donated $2000 each to Dennis O’Keefe and Ron Ellsworth who both ran for mayor (they did not make a donation to the third candidate for mayor, Mark Wilson, lead singer for local reggae band, The Idlers, and organic farmer). For deputy mayor, they donated $1000 to both candidates, Shannie Duff and Keith Coombs.

It is impossible to tell the real effect that campaign contributions has on the outcome of elections; there are far more issues at play then simply the amount of donations a candidate receives. Saying that, let me leave you with this point, from my article for The Scope: If the results of the election were determined solely by who received more campaign contributions, not votes, there would only be four changes to our current council: Gerry Colbert and Sandy Hickman (both of whom were incumbents) would not have made it in at councillor at large, but Simon Lono and Bernard Davis would have. Art Puddister would have beat Danny Breen in Ward 1, and Shannie Duff would have been beaten by Keith Coombs.

If you are interested in municipal politics in St. John’s, check out my liveblog of city council meetings, live on The Scope’s twitter page, 4:30pm every Monday.

photo by Andrew Harvey