Back in 2009 I began to write on the topic of campaign election finance with a series of posts labeled Know Your Donor. It was during those weeks that I became fascinated by not only the amount of money raised and spent on municipal election campaigns, but also by how many additional questions the disclosure documents raised. As I poured through the pages submitted by the various campaigns and candidates I found anomalies that hinted laws had been broken, but I could not prove it outright. I was struck by how many ways money from a single source was filtered through different companies or third parties, which is not entirely illegal but suggests that no one wants to be seen giving too much in a lump sum.
I was also surprised at how little interest – with the notable exception of the Vancouver Courier's Mike Howell – the mainstream media had in municipal election finance. The flurry of stories this week by Howell, CKNW's Charmaine de Silva, as well as the Vancouver Sun and The Province on election spending is a refreshing change.
Reading the donor disclosures I was also amazed by the number of people who self-financed campaigns to the tune of four to five figures. To me a five-figure sum is still a lot of money, though it pales next to what someone like Mitt Romney or Michael Bloomberg spend on their own campaigns. The best advice I got from political veterans when I decided to run is to not spend my own money on the campaign, which is a promise I kept to myself and my family. The opportunity cost of time away from work for campaigning, however, was much larger than I imagined. As a self-employed person you take a real hit, and you're left asking if it's worth it.
Why do so many candidates put so much money into their own campaigns? Most likely because raising money, no matter what the state of the economy, is a gruelling task for most people. Even with all the millions in donations recorded by the City Clerk's office right up until Monday's deadline, getting someone to part with their money on a campaign where no tax receipts are issued can be a humbling experience. In the end we see far too many candidates who've not properly budgeted for their campaign, and they're left stuck writing a personal cheque or taking a loan from their business.
I've been both infatuated by the subject of campaign financing and I've received donations for my own candidacy. In that respect it's a bit like gazing through the looking glass. During the campaign I remember taking pains not to ever touch the actual donation, making sure that if a cheque came in that my financial agent got it and not me. When we received a donation I usually didn't concern myself with how much was given by whom, though if a big cheque came in it was impossible to ignore. Overall, I was concerned how much we had in the bank and whether we had enough to run the campaign.
After the tally my campaign raised about $35,000 – see my campaign disclosure here. As a first time candidate, getting to that amount was no mean feat. It's a considerable sum when you consider it's more than half the annual salary of a Vancouver city councillor. Lucky for me I didn't have to take a mortgage out on City Caucus Tower to raise that sum (um, kidding).
We always hear from the righteous left that they won't take money from corporations when in reality COPE and Vision – just like their right-leaning counterparts – would jump at every dollar they could get their hands on if it improved their chances of winning. Look at the Vision Vancouver campaign funding disclosure to see the names of some of the biggest capitalists in the city handing over cash to what amounts to an NDP farm team with green stockings. And even though Vision tried to brand themselves as anti-casino last year, there's no escaping the fact they previously received a $170,000 donation from internet gambling kingpin John LeFebvre, which the party happily spent. Pretending you're better than the other guys because unions support you financially is just hot air.
Some readers will recall how many times I raised the issue of Vision's compliance with rules in the Vancouver Charter regarding campaign disclosure. It must have been embarrassing for the party to be carrying $240,000 in campaign debt, and to be nagged by a blogger to disclose when and how they would pay it off. I noticed today when reading Vision's 2011 disclosure that they received well over $100,000 after the campaign from some of their most loyal donors. That says to me they got the message not to wrap their campaign in the red.
Though there are plenty of interesting numbers in Vision's campaign disclosure, the most interesting one is $977,481.63 spent on compensation. That's nearly a million bucks, or almost half of their funding on paying people on the campaign. That number is the single most important reason Vision won the election. It explains Vision's street teams standing in the rain for weeks identifying voters. It explains over 1,000 campaign workers on Election Day going door to door getting out the vote. When you don't have enough volunteers, there's no shame in paying people to help you win.
Parties on the left can always count on their union allies to strengthen their ranks on Election Day and to identify supporters. This is why calls for banning "corporate and union" donations – as Vancouver city council recently did – are disingenuous. Help from unions is harder to document, and therefore might not even show up on a campaign disclosure.
Someone with a lot of experience with the NDP and Vision Vancouver once pulled the wraps on how it all works. Brad Zubyk is the spouse of Vision Vancouver's campaign communications director Marcella Munro. Brad has worked closely with Gregor Robertson and Joyce Murray among many other elected officials. In 2008 Zubyk gave a sworn affidavit as testimony on a BC Liberal bill aimed at third party campaign ads. Vancouver Sun's Vaughn Palmer wrote a fascinating exposé into NDP campaign tactics from Zubyk's testimony:
He's a 20-year veteran of B.C. political campaigns, mostly on behalf of left-of-centre parties. Zubyk helped former NDP MLA Gregor Robertson win the mayor's office in Vancouver this fall. He also worked for the B.C. branch of the federal Liberals in their campaign.
But the relevant parts of his resume for this case were his multiple efforts for the NDP, including the last provincial campaign.
"During the 2005 election, I was one of the senior people in the communications campaign run by the provincial NDP," Zubyk says in his affidavit. My official title was director of candidate support. This made me one of the core communications operatives in the NDP's campaign war room.
"During that time," continues the voice from the NDP war room, "the NDP ran an election campaign that was closely coordinated with the campaigns of major labour groups in the province. "The unions' membership and spending was used as a resource to support our overall campaign and we exploited that resource to the best effect possible.
"One of the things that some major unions would do for the NDP during this campaign was to share contact information of their members with the party."
Zubyk also told how the unions would tap their own membership lists "on behalf of and in coordination with the NDP."
This quasi-merger of the lists would "permit more accurate and efficient use of voter identification resources and permit those [union] members to be targeted with messaging supportive of the NDP and designed to ensure that members supportive of the NDP vote on election day."
All this coordinated effort — events, advertising, volunteer recruitment and voter identification — amounted to parallel campaigns, one run by the unions, the other directly by the NDP.
"The NDP expected this coordination to permit the party's own resources to be freed up for investment in other campaign activities," Zubyk says.
"It was effectively the pooling of resources (financial and human) to serve the end of electing as many NDP candidates as possible."
So in addition to the financial contributions that candidates and elector organizations require, there is another currency in free labour and voter identification provided by unions. Unless an Elections Officer can actually calculate what those contributions are worth the playing field will never be even.
One of the unions that made their presence known throughout the 2011 election cycle were Vancouver Fire Fighters' Union, Local 18. It seemed that they were represented at every event the NPA held. Their issue that we heard repeatedly was staffing. They wanted twenty additional fire fighters to replace staff lost through attrition. Their lobbying succeeded in convincing NPA's candidate for mayor Suzanne Anton to agree to hiring those twenty fire fighters if she formed government.
In hindsight I see now that decision was a mistake. Not because the NPA naively thought they could strike a deal with a trade union, but because the leader gave them what they wanted. Vision, on the other hand, did not publicly make the same promise. Yet, when the union announced their endorsements they did what they always do, and pledged support for a Vision/COPE slate with a token NPA representative. The image above shows the fire fighters hitting the streets in support of Gregor Robertson, wearing yellow t-shirts with "Fire Fighters Supporting Those Who Support Us" on the front.
From what I've read about the 2012 Budget, it seems that the police department and not the fire fighters were rewarded with additional staff. So the story has an ironic twist.
By Monday we'll have everyone else's financial disclosures, including the NPA's and COPE's. The headlines will blare that this is the most costly election ever. And just like with declining voter turnout after every election someone will argue that we must "fix the problem" through legislative changes. But ultimately, what are we trying to fix? Most people seem to think the majority got who they wanted into government, and while it's far from perfect our system of government has rid itself of some of the worst forms of corruption seen worldwide.
Where we can improve is by demanding more detailed disclosure, and stiffening up the penalties for breaking the rules. We can also provide better information for those who are seeking public office in a city like Vancouver so they will know the personal and financial sacrifices that come with election campaigns.
But, even with all that said, I still love downloading and pouring through those campaign finance disclosures. Thank goodness the internet makes it so easy.
- post by Mike. You can find the 2011 City of Vancouver election campaign disclosure documents here.