Talk about money for nothing: Philadelphia City Council members collectively raked in nearly $2 million in political donations during an election year in which no council member was up for re-election, spending some $1.6 million on a variety of expenses along the way.
Of course, modern politics is a little like that line from “Glengarry Glen Ross”; winners will say that elected officials should always be fundraising, be it to build political networks or stave off their next opponent.
Two council members seem to have especially taken that credo to heart: Bobby Henon and Kenyatta Johnson accounted for over one-third of all fundraising by the 17 members of Council. Henon and council ally Mark Squilla were similarly responsible for 40 percent of all the money spent by municipal legislators in 2016.
Henon raised $365,000 and spent $437,000. His prodigious campaign churn is perhaps to be expected – The two-term Northeast Philly councilman has always been a dynamic fundraiser, with strong ties to deep-pocketed unions like International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 98 and affiliated building trades.
About a third of the 6th District councilman’s money came from groups tied to John Dougherty, the power broker behind Local 98, and other unions. And the councilman wasn’t shy about it, despite being tarred by a wide-ranging federal investigation directly related to Local 98’s political activities.
"I am grateful to enjoy support from individuals across the city and from my brothers and sisters in the labor movement, whom I’ve worked with for decades," Henon wrote in a statement to City & State PA.
Union groups also spent big on Johnson, representing the 2nd District across town in South Philadelphia, totaling over $57,000. But the South Philly councilman also saw even more – $68,300 – in large donations from for-profit and affordable-housing developers, not to mention dozens of smaller contributions.
“It’s a seat with the most development going on in the city, between Point Breeze and that part of Center City,” said political consultant (and frequent council donor) Larry Ceisler.
But Ceisler added that that designation could also be a mixed blessing, as the district’s high profile also tended to necessitate an incumbent’s aggressive fundraising to battle wealthy political challengers like Ori Feibush, who unsuccessfully ran against Johnson in 2015.
“I think it’s a seat that, for better or worse, is always going to have someone who wants to run and could self-finance,” he said.
Johnson’s spokesperson, Mark Nevins, noted Johnson’s evolution from the days when his campaign struggled to even file legitimate financial disclosure forms.
“The credit for this recent success goes to the councilman,” he said. “He made a smart decision to professionalize his operation and take it to the next level. It's nice to see that it's paying dividends.”
Ceisler agreed, noting that both Henon and Johnson had retained Center City Philadelphia fundraising firm Rittenhouse Political Partners, headed by consultant Aubrey Montgomery – as did fellow councilmembers Allan Domb, Helen Gym and Cherelle Parker.
“I’ve known Kenyatta Johnson since he was a state Rep. You can see the difference in the way he fundraises since he started working with Aubrey,” he said. “When you look at who’s leading in terms of the fundraising – they’re Aubrey’s clients.”
But Montgomery’s clients also spend big to earn big. Johnson shelled out $46,000 to the firm, while Henon racked up $69,000 in fees.
Invoices like that helped Henon become council’s biggest spender. He paid out enormous sums for events – political or otherwise – totaling some $76,000 spent on venue rentals, catering and other costs. He spent another $66,000 on other various political consultants and another $20,000 on national law firm Best, Best & Kreiger for “technical assistance” on policy issues.
Henon also spread cash around his district, dropping tens of thousands on neighborhood summer camps, playgrounds, rec centers and scholarship programs. He contributed more than $40,000 for the maintenance and operation of a temporary library and arts building, called the “Tacony LAB,” while the Tacony Branch of the Philadelphia Free Library is under renovation.
Seven thousand dollars in contracting went to Pyramid Construction, a company whose owner, Daniel Pellicciotti, pleaded guilty in 2005 to bribing a Philadelphia Minority Business Enterprise Council employee in exchange for a minority business certificate, which boosts chances for receiving government contracts. Pellicciotti was barred from receiving federal contracts for three years following his plea, according to the U.S. Office of the Inspector General.
Henon’s campaign acknowledged that Pellicotti was paid to perform repair work on the Tacony LAB, pointing out that it was “not a government contract.” But it’s not the best look at a time when council is desperately trying to figure out how to improve the city’s corruption-plagued minority contracting system.
Henon wasn’t the only one who spent more than he raised, though. Squilla paid out nearly $200,000 last year – some $16,000 more than he brought in from contributions.
His biggest expense was also consulting – $80,000 of the $178,000 he brought in went to consultants. This included $36,000 to fundraiser Lindsey Perry and $11,000 for social media management. He also paid $33,000 to a district resident, Dan Stevenson, who serves as Squilla’s surrogate for after-hours community business in the district, from nuisance complaints to quality-of-life meetings.
“I don’t have a budget, and my staff members who work all day can’t go to these night meetings,” Squilla said. “It’s incredibly burdensome.”
On top of consulting fees, however, Squilla’s camp shelled out more than $50,000 for his post-inauguration bash at the Loews Hotel, a big campaign fundraiser at the Fillmore music hall, 113 restaurant tabs, and $503 in parking tickets over the course of the year. Finance reports also show more than $26,000 in donations to various nonprofit organizations and businesses, both inside and outside his district.
After expenses, his campaign ended the year with just over $48,000 on hand. Squilla said he’ll have to ramp up fundraising and cut back on things like making donations – despite the fact that he dropped $2,115 across five visits to Center City chain steakhouse Del Frisco’s – in order brace for any potential challengers in 2019.
“If you have enough money in the bank, that scares people off from challenging you, whereas if they see you don’t have money, they might not be afraid,” he said. “I wish that we had some type of state or government funding for campaigns. It would make it a whole lot easier.”
Fundraising is generally tougher for at-large members, who don’t preside over development and permitting issues. To wit: Brian O’Neill, a quiet Republican with a far-flung, sleepy district in the Far Northeast. He easily raked in $80,000 last year and sits atop Council’s largest war chest by far, with $400,000 on hand at the end of 2016.
“He’s raised a lot,” said Ceisler of O’Neill. “He doesn't spend much because he knows as a Philly Republican, he’s an endangered species. When you have that much money on the table, that is very intimidating for a credible Democratic challenger.”
To be sure, a district’s demographic appeal is not enough on its own to fatten a politician’s coffers.
Councilmembers like María Quiñones-Sánchez, Cherelle Parker, Cindy Bass and Council President Darrell Clarke comprised four of the five lowest earners last year, each pulling in less than $46,000 – Bass barely cleared $15,000. For comparison, at-large members like Helen Gym and Allan Domb both brought in well north of $100,000 in contributions with the aid of Montgomery.
But people like Clarke can afford to casually fundraise: He has broad political support, ran uncontested in the last election, and has a large war chest. Quiñones-Sánchez, on the other hand, holds what is arguably the most vulnerable seat on the legislative body.
The two-term legislator has gone to war with big unions, the Democratic City Committee and, of greater consequence, a deeply tribal contingent of ward leaders and community power brokers who will stop at nothing to unseat her. Complicating things further, her fundraising efforts are hindered by the fact that her North Philly district has no anchor of wealth and is rarely the object of desire for deep-pocketed developers, like Johnson’s.
“Some (council members) can call 10 people who will cut them $2,900 checks,” Quiñones-Sánchez said, referring to the maximum individual campaign contribution. “I have to call hundreds of people for $100 checks.”
The councilwoman noted that time is an issue, too. Some council members prioritize cold calls to donors more than others. And while she has been scouting for a fundraising consultant – which she’ll need to face an inevitable challenger in 2019 – some ace consultants often won’t contract with political rivals at the same time. Of note, Quiñones-Sánchez spent months fighting against Mayor Jim Kenney’s sugar-sweetened beverage tax last year and, per finance records, almost a quarter of the $46,000 her campaign raised in 2016 came from big soda magnates and blue-collar unions that stood to lose under the tax.
This article was co-published by Philadelphia Weekly and City & State PA.