Contributions from developers flooded in to some city council races — but it didn’t always translate to victories

Roxie Hammill - November 21, 2019 11:26 am
Phil Bressler’s campaign took in more than $30,000 in donations — including many large donations from people associated with developers and builders. But the fundraising advantage didn’t translate to a victory on election day.

Voters may not have been all that interested in recent city elections, but plenty of homebuilders, real estate lawyers and brokers, unions, Republicans and Democrats were, judging by campaign finance records filed with the county elections office.

Development-related interests that had been active during the primaries showed no signs of slowing their contributions once the primaries were over in August. They continued to pump money into Overland Park races in particular, even though in some cases they vastly out-contributed the opposition. The voter turnout, meanwhile, was 17.35 percent.

A look at reports filed just before the November election revealed several interesting facts:

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  • There was a surge of $500 contributions from development-related interests in the Overland Park City Council races.
  • Candidates with the highest contributions and spending did not always win.
  • Both political parties not only gave their preferences for the non-partisan races, but also gave money.
  • More contributions associated with people and organizations active in Democratic politics were reported by the candidates than those from Republican circles. And the majority of candidates endorsed by the county Democratic women’s groups won their races.

Some Overland Park contests saw funding in line with statehouse races

The candidates running for seats on the Overland Park City Council representing Wards 1, 2 and 3 took part in a SM Post forum at the Johnson County Public Library Central Resource Branch.

The six Overland Park council contests were already high on the contributions list even before the primaries were over. But after that happened, giving got even more intense.

Of those, two raised the most money of all the big local races examined by the Post. Giving to Phil Bressler, who unsuccessfully challenged incumbent councilmember Faris Farassati, topped $30,000 over both the primary and general election – the most of any local races.

Contributions to Tom Carignan, who won against Stephan Glentzer for the Ward 3 seat was also among the highest. Carignan raised close to $29,000 over the two reporting periods.

Carignan and Bressler’s campaign hauls were in line with what some candidates raise in races for the Kansas House of Representatives.

Not all of their contributions were from building interests, but Carignan and Bressler each reported a long string of $500 contributions from a wide variety of building-related companies, political action committees and individuals including the Homebuilders Association of Greater Kansas City, Ken Block, George Butler Associates and J.E. Dunn, to name a few.

Contributions in those two races were lopsided, though. Glentzer reported contributions of only $725 for the year ($1,023 if his in-kind contribution from himself is counted). And Farassati, who has eschewed development-related money, reported $6,387 for the same period, mostly from individuals. None of the same development interests contributed to those campaigns.

Development financing has been an increasingly controversial subject in Overland Park. Some citizens who have spoken out against tax increment financing and other developer aid actively supported Farassati, Glentzer and Holly Grummert, who defeated incumbent Terry Happer Scheier in Ward 1. Development was also an issue in the Ward 6 race, in which incumbent Rick Collins lost to Scott Hamblin. Hamblin fought the city in an eminent domain case concerning land for a future road expansion.

Development interests gave to Spears, Happer Scheier and Collins but not to the same extent. Still Happer Scheier reported getting almost twice as much as her opponent in fall contributions from all sources, Spears about five times as much and Collins about 1.3 times as much.

The Homebuilders Association of Greater KC’s political action committee made frequent appearances on campaign reports, with contributions of over $6,000 reported by various candidates. Will Ruder, executive vice president, said that for local races, the group makes its donations based most often on contacts with the candidates. Ruder said the organization’s aim is to make sure consumers have access to a variety of single-family housing options.

“What our members like is consistency,” he said. “If you have consistent rules to follow our members are the good guys following the rules.”

Carignan attributed his money-raising success to his positive message and the relationships he’s built with the community in his 20 years as a banker. “I’ll listen and study and do my homework and look at everything equally as opposed to having a completely closed mind,” he said of the upcoming discussions on TIFs. “We should not be a blank checkbook for anything,” he said, adding he’d like to find a way of measuring the success of the projects the city helps along.

Construction-related labor unions also participated in a few local races in a more limited way. Laborers Local 1290 and the Western Missouri and Kansas Laborer’s District Council were reported on disclosures from Dan Osman of Overland Park, Courtney Eiterich of Lenexa and Jill Chalfie of Shawnee for $250 donations.

There was development-related cash in some other races, but not to the degree found in Overland Park, where several big developments are pending.

Shawnee mayor’s race saw Meyer outraise Distler

Councilwoman Stephanie Meyer’s campaign significantly outraised that of incumbent Michelle Distler, who won reelection.

Only one other contest came close to matching the amount of contributions of the two highest Overland Park races. In the Shawnee mayor’s race, councilmember and challenger Stephanie Meyer reported raising over $12,000 each reporting period, for a total of $25,000. Meyer lost to incumbent Mayor Michelle Distler, whose contributions came to just over $15,000 for the same period.

Meyer’s donor list included Nieman Properties, Don Julian Builders, Shawnee Plaza Redevelopment and the Vaught Group (Jeff Vaught is a former city council member).

Campaigns with high contributions often did not come close to spending all of it. The majority of spending was for printing, Facebook ads and in some cases, fees to an on-line political money-raising business called Raise the Money.

As a result, many campaigns will end the year with leftover money in the bank. Carignan closed out October with $12,902 left on hand and Bressler with $16,072, for example. Rules for different sized cities can vary, but in general candidates are allowed to hang onto their balances as long as they leave their campaigns open and keep filing reports. If they close out the campaign, they can refund to donors or donate the balance to a political party, charity or the state general fund. They’re not allowed to use campaign donations to contribute to another candidate.

Partisan giving in non-partisan races

The county political parties were also involved in the local non-partisan races. Both political parties worked to communicate their preferred candidates in the non-partisan races to members — and in some cases related groups went further by making donations.

For example, the Johnson County Democratic Women’s chapters both north and south issued an endorsement list of 15 candidates, 10 of whom won their races. The groups were also able to give to those races this year, because of the growth of the county party, said Anne Pritchett, president of JCDW North.

That group requires more of their endorsees than just being a registered Democrat. Pritchett said to get an endorsement a candidate must also be an active member who attends at least five meetings.

She said the party has seen a surge of interest, especially since Laura Kelly won the governorship and Sharice Davids won a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. That interest is translating into more funds for the Democrats to put into contributions, she said.

County Republicans also gave, particularly in the Shawnee races. Dave Myres, chairman of the county party, said, “While we work to elect Republicans across the county and want them all to win, the results followed partisan divides we are starting to see in the county.”

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