Ora Houston shows good side of contribution limits

Ora Houston photo
Council Member Ora Houston

Hopefully by the end of the business hours on Monday we’ll be able to look at every candidate’s campaign finance filling that will tell us how much money they raised during the first half of 2018. As of Sunday night, however, we’ve only got some early bird filers. The committees that file early usually have raised little to no money because the candidate is not running for re-election or because the group is defunct or dormant (e.g. Mike Levy’s “The Committee For An Even Minimally Sane and Rational Government”).

But even the least notable campaign finance reports can ocasionally offer an interesting glimpse behind the curtain of local politics. For instance, the $3,720 that Council Member Ora Houston, who recently announced she’s not running for re-election, reported receiving over the past six months.

More than half of it –– $2,200 –– she received on Feb. 19 from four employees of Journeyman Construction Inc. Three of the top company leaders and their spouses maxed out ($350 each) to Houston, while another employee gave $100.

Coincidentally, I just wrote a story about a residential development that JCI is proposing in North Austin. I wouldn’t be surprised, in light of these contributions, if JCI is also involved in a project in Houston’s district that it was hoping to get her support on. It will be interesting to see if they spread the wealth around to other Council members.

Another couple that maxed out to Houston was Bob & Kay Gregory. Bob is the head of Texas Disposal Systems, the local garbage company that is very good at convincing City Council that what is good for TDS is good for Austin.

Then there was another developer who contributed the $350 max. Yes, developers are people too and they have political opinions (or volunteer commission service) that are not necessarily linked to their business interests, but it’s hard to imagine a developer contributing to an erratic anti-development Council member for reasons that are not business-related. The same goes for Gregory.

Anyway, what is nice about this picture is how little money those who are ostensibly contributing to exert influence are able to give. A $350 maximum makes it very hard for a single donor to make a big impact and hold that impact over the head of an elected official. At the very least he (it’s usually a he) has to mobilize a bunch of other allies to max out. If the contribution limits were much higher, then bigwigs would have an even greater impact on campaigns and wield greater influence over Council members once they’re in office.

The dark side of low contribution limits is that it does not restrict candidates from pouring gazillions of their own money into their campaigns. Hence, with the stroke of a pen Steve Adler is able to inject his campaign with an amount of money that a less affluent candidate could only get by convincing over a thousand separate people to contribute $350.

Being rich is always an advantage in politics (despite what Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign may have you believe), but it’s an even bigger advantage when you make it hard on non-rich candidates to raise money. In Austin, even a local notable who has built up a big rolodex of donors over the years will struggle to play ball with a candidate who can write a five or six-figure check to his own campaign. “How much money can you give your campaign?” is one of the first questions a campaign strategist asks a candidate.

Another dark side of contribution limits is the advantage it grants incumbents or members of the political establishment in general. Special interest donors will always give to elected officials in the hopes of maintaining or building relationships with those in power. That means that during her term in office, a Council member can amass a warchest by getting those donors to max out each year, whereas the challenger typically only has a year to raise money.

Now, there used to be city rules that dealt with this advantage for incumbents: elected officials used to have to relinquish the majority of leftover funds from a campaign after they were elected. And they were not allowed to begin raising money until six months before Election Day. Those rules are no longer in place after they were ruled unconstitutional by a federal court. Bummer.

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