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If candidates for mayor of Minneapolis were running in Boston, they would file a report online of their campaign contributions every two weeks for six months before the election. If they were running in Seattle? Once a week. And in a range of other cities with a mayoral election this fall, they would have shared their donor lists at least four months before voters go to the polls.
Instead, contenders in the first open-seat race for Minneapolis mayor in 20 years have received contributions for as long as eight months without having to disclose a single detail to the public, and they won’t release their first campaign finance reports until Sept. 3.
They’ll file one more report, available to the public the week before the Nov. 5 election.
Campaign-reform advocates and some candidates say that the system is outdated and that it lags the rest of the country, creating “data dumps” that hinder the public from learning the information in a meaningful, timely way.
“I would like us to follow the lead of these other states,” said Council Member Cam Gordon, who chairs the Elections Committee. “We are way behind what we should be doing.”
Reporting of campaign finances has taken on increasing importance this year, with 35 candidates running for mayor and one front-runner estimating that campaign budgets could be as high as $500,000.
Campaigns for the top candidates in the race offered general support for more transparency, though they declined to share their fundraising numbers with the Star Tribune ahead of the Sept. 3 deadline.
Gordon pushed without success for more frequent and detailed campaign finance disclosures in 2008, when the city attorney’s office told him that Minneapolis was barred by state law from enacting finance rules stricter than those required for the rest of Minnesota. He said his colleagues were lukewarm about going to the Legislature to change that.
Candidates in Minnesota must file a report 10 days before a primary and 10 days before a general election.
Instead of a primary, the city is holding only one election, using a ranked-choice system that allows voters to choose their first, second and third choice in candidates.
But representatives of Hennepin County and Minneapolis pointed out that the city still requires two reports to be filed, after a change in the city charter that kept Minneapolis consistent with the rest of the state.
Still, the minimal disclosure requirements are in line with low ratings that the region has received for government transparency. The U.S. Public Interest Research Group gave Minneapolis City Hall a D-minus this year in providing online access to government spending. In 2012, the Center for Public Integrity gave Minnesota a D-plus for its corruption risk, noting that it lagged other states in its requirements for disclosure.
Jeremy Schroeder, executive director of Common Cause Minnesota, said reforms in other states often came in response to scandals, “and I think in Minnesota because we haven’t had those, our laws are frankly behind the times. It’s kind of a weird situation: Because we haven’t had some of the problems that other states have, we are set up perfectly to have those problems happen in this state.”
Campaign finance reports were released at least one or two months ago in a number of cities with mayoral races in November or December, such as Detroit, Houston, Miami, Atlanta, New York and Albuquerque, N.M.
In Seattle, which also has a Nov. 5 mayoral election, candidates have been required to report contributions once a week since June and once a month before then if they raise or spend more than $200. The disclosures are instantly updated online. The system allows candidates to file even more often if they wish, and some have been doing so nearly every day.
“It’s worked out really well,” said Wayne Barnett, executive director of the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission. “People do tend to value transparency and that real-time ability to see who candidates are getting money from and where it’s going.”
He said that some candidates like it because it allows them to show off their fundraising prowess, but that others complain the rules are so onerous that campaigns are forced to hire treasurers, instead of recruiting volunteers to do the numbers at their kitchen table.
Many candidates, low limits
Fundraising has posed a challenge for Minneapolis mayoral candidates, given low contribution limits and the large field of contenders.
Council Member Don Samuels said the $500 limit on how much people can contribute to the campaign “makes fundraising very, very slow. … If I had my druthers, I’d just go out, meet people, hear what the issues are and never have to raise a penny.”
He said that disclosure is important but that “I do think it’s possible to get obsessive on that, and shift the focus from the issues to the money … everything is [then] judged not by the quality of the candidate, but by the pocketbook of the candidate.”
Mark Andrew, a former Hennepin County commissioner, is expected to receive many campaign contributions from members of labor unions that have lined up to endorse him. He’s also receiving a big fundraising push from Sam and Sylvia Kaplan, a prominent couple in DFL politics who helped elect Mayor R.T. Rybak. Andrew reached out to the arts community in a smaller fundraiser last week.
Council Member Betsy Hodges has received support from groups that back female candidates who support abortion rights, such as Emily’s List and womenwinning, and Council Member Gary Schiff and state Sen. Scott Dibble have contributed and raised money on her behalf. She had a fundraiser hosted in recent weeks hosted by Minneapolis developer George Sherman, who also held a fundraiser Tuesday for Jackie Cherryhomes, a former council president.
The last time some of the candidates filed any report showing what they raised and spent was in January, when they revealed their financials for the previous year.
“The current system creates a data dump on Sept. 3, where those insider candidates hope that nobody notices the various contributions they got from [those with] business before the city, and it puts a tough burden on watchdogs to go through all of that data …” said Cam Winton, a wind energy attorney running as an independent. “It’d be better if the disclosures were more frequent and sooner in the campaign season — that way there would be more transparency.”