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Published: Sunday, 1/21/2007

Pricey council campaigns deter some from running


The bidding for a Toledo City Council seat this year starts around $25,000, candidates and analysts estimate, and it could go higher than $50,000.

Ellen Grachek says that's untenable.

Others say it's a bargain.

In Toledo's relatively unfettered campaign finance world, nearly everyone agrees it's reality.

Ms. Grachek, a Democrat, announced last week that she won't run for a second term representing council District 5. She doesn't like fund-raising, she explained, or the debts to donors it implies.

And she sees no way to win otherwise. "I don't have a trust fund," Ms. Grachek said. "I don't make $100,000 a year I don't want to have to raise the money and be beholden to what that money supposedly buys."

Ms. Grachek's seat cost her more than $50,000 over two elections in 2003. In the most recent district council race, a single special election last spring, Mike Craig paid more than $28,000 for a five-vote victory.

Analysts say the tab could rise in competitive races this year, when all six district seats are back on the ballot, including two with no incumbents running.

Mark Luetke, a Democratic political consultant, says council campaigns now routinely cost $10,000 to $15,000 - in the suburbs. In Toledo, he said, "I don't think Ellen's number of $50,000 is too off the mark. Could you do it with $35,000? Maybe. ... Could you win it with $20,000 or $25,000? Maybe not, against a well-financed candidate."

Later, he added: "The basic tools of political campaigns are just costing more."

In a district race, the basic tools mean campaign flyers, mailings, and, increasingly, television advertising. The costs are relative.

Democrat Joe McNamara spent more than $90,000, including $70,000 from his own bank account, to win a special at-large council election in the fall. Mayoral candidates Jack Ford and Carty Finkbeiner combined for a $1.2 million campaign in 2005.

When U.S. Sen. Barack Obama (D., Ill.) took the first steps for a presidential campaign last week, the pundit buzz was that he needed to raise $1 million a week, or more, to compete.

Ms. Grachek said it's all gotten out of hand. She raised the possibility this week of regulating local candidate spending.

Statewide and federal campaign laws cap individual donations. Toledo's do not. That's how the Service Employees International Union financed nearly half of Mr. Craig's District 3 campaign last year - $13,000 worth - and the United Auto Workers chipped in $10,000 more.

Ms. Grachek suggests that the process excludes candidates unwilling or unable to tap deep-pocketed benefactors. Mr. McNamara agrees.

"When you deal with these numbers, and large checks that get written, there's issues of influence," he said. "I don't care who you are. If somebody writes you a check for $20,000 and they call you, you take the call."

Others say district races are still small enough - targeting about 50,000 voters each - that hard work can still carry the day.

"You can go door-to-door and meet almost every voter," said Megan Vahey, a political coordinator affiliated with the SEIU who helped on Mr. Craig's campaign and ran Mr. Ford's mayoral race, adding: "It takes money, certainly, but it also takes a candidate willing to do the work."

Councilman Michael Ashford says the nearly $30,000 Mr. Craig spent to win that race could be seen as a bargain compared with city or statewide races: "When you think about the overall scheme of things, that's not a huge amount of money."

The best-funded local candidate doesn't always win. Mr. Ford, the incumbent in 2005, outspent Mr. Finkbeiner and lost the mayor's race; four years earlier, Mr. Ford beat an opponent who outspent him.

Still, Ms. Grachek may find some council sympathy for campaign finance reform. Councilman Frank Szollosi favors publicly financed elections; Mr. McNamara supports "a fair playing field where everyone spends the same amount of money."

Mr. Luetke, the consultant who doubles as a Sylvania city councilman, said he has little sympathy for fund-raising-shy candidates.

"I'm not sure I count them as qualified," he said, "because they're not willing to do what it takes to get there."

Contact Jim Tankersley at: jtankersley@theblade.com or 419-724-6134.

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