For years, the world of Lawrence City Commission campaigning has run on $50, $100 or sometimes even $500 donations from supporters.
A $5,000 donation hasn’t been the norm. But it is reality in the 2013 Lawrence City Commission race.
A new pro-business political action committee — Lawrence United — entered the campaign scene over the weekend with a mass mailing supporting candidates Rob Chestnut, Jeremy Farmer and Terry Riordan.
Campaign finance records show the group received its support from a host of Lawrence business interests, led by a $5,000 donation from longtime Lawrence business Penny’s Concrete.
“I was asked to contribute to the group, and I did because I feel like it really is about the importance of promoting the need for jobs,” said Bill Penny, an owner of Penny’s Concrete. “I’m absolutely not ashamed to help people have jobs. It makes people feel good about themselves and feel productive in their society.”
Lawrence attorney Casey Meek serves as the chair and treasurer of the new group. He said the organization plans to create a board of directors in the near future that will keep the PAC active for future local elections. He said the group will work to register new voters, attract “young and enthusiastic” candidates for local office and work to promote a better business environment in Lawrence.
“We’re trying to make Lawrence as attractive as possible to outside businesses and make it as easy as possible for local businesses to stay up and running,” Meek said.
Political action committees aren’t entirely new in local Lawrence political races. In the 1990s, a group called Progressive Lawrence actively campaigned for candidates that it thought would give neighborhoods more of a voice in the City Hall process. And candidates frequently receive donations from political organizations related to various building trades unions, police and firefighter organizations, and other such groups.
But the entry of Lawrence United into the City Commission race did have several political observers talking this week, in part because of how much money the group raised in a short period of time. From Feb. 11 to Feb. 13, the group raised $7,500. To put that in perspective, that was more money than four of the six candidates in the field raised during the entire primary election fundraising period that ran from Jan. 1 to Feb. 14.
State law limits individuals or businesses from giving more than $500 to any one candidate during any one election season. There are no limits on how much individuals or businesses can contribute to a political action committee, said Donna Williams, office manager for the Kansas Governmental Ethics Commission.
Political action committees can spend as much as they want on their own advertising that advocates for particular candidates, as long as they don’t coordinate that advertising with the candidates, Williams said.
A mailer that went out last weekend by Lawrence United urged voters to support Chestnut, Farmer and Riordan in the upcoming April 2 City Commission elections. The mailer didn’t delve into any specific issues but rather its main message was it supports “candidates who support creating a sustainable, vibrant and growing economy.”
Riordan, though, said it was Doug Gaumer, president of the Lawrence operations of Intrust Bank and the chair of the Lawrence Chamber of Commerce, who approached him on behalf of the PAC. He said Gaumer told him the PAC was separate from the Lawrence Chamber of Commerce.
“He said its goal is to create sustainable jobs for people in Lawrence, and I said that is one of my goals too,” said Riordan, a Lawrence physician who finished third in last month’s primary election.
Riordan said the group gave his campaign a $100 donation. He said he was unaware the group was going to do the mass mailing, but he said he appreciated it. He said he thinks the role of PACs in local elections may grow in the future.
“I don’t have any problems with the PACs as long as they are supportive and open about what their support is about,” Riordan said. “I hope they don’t become as important as they are at the state and Congressional level, because I do think they have too much influence there.”
An expenditure report filed with the Douglas County Clerk’s office shows both Gaumer and his wife, Kathy, a Lawrence physician, each donated $150 to the PAC, and a consulting firm that appears to be based out of their home donated another $200.
In total, the group attracted donations from seven donors during its three-day period. They included $1,000 from Lawrence-based Paul Werner Architects. Werner has been a lead architect for the proposed Rock Chalk Park sports village, that includes a proposed $25 million city recreation center. Other contributors included: $500 from Lawrence-based O’Malley Beverage Company; and $500 from OSS Solutions Inc., a Lawrence-based consulting firm.
Meek said the group has continued to raise additional money and plans to do more advertising before the April 2 election.
Candidates who didn’t receive an endorsement said they thought Lawrence United’s entrance into the race would add a new element to the campaign.
“As a candidate, it doesn’t worry me too much,” said Leslie Soden, the sixth-place finisher in the primary. “The trouble I’ve been having is voters have been asking me who are the chamber candidates, who are the liberal candidates. This actually helps because now I have an answer. I can say these are the candidates who have been endorsed by a pro-development group.”