Post #280: Campaign finances and the Hunter Mill candidates

In Post #272 I described the Virginia Campaign Finance Disclosure Act (CFDA).  In that posting, I noted that no campaign finance laws apply to elections in the Town of Vienna.  But this posting isn’t about Vienna.  In this posting, I’m going to show you what the CFDA can do for you, in terms of making you an informed citizen with respect to Fairfax County elections.

Disclosure:  I contributed to the campaign of Parker Messick.  You can see my posting about my talk with Candidate Messick on this page.

Last week, ViennaVotes.com sponsored a debate by the five Democratic candidates for Board of Supervisors member from the Hunter Mill district.  The debate took place in our Community Center, and you can see a description of the setup in my Post #277.  The writeup of the results and excerpts from the tape are forthcoming on ViennaVotes.

The questions were about Vienna, and all the candidates seemed to give good answers when it came to issues of growth and development.  How can a person make a reasoned choice, then?

One way is to study the candidates’ positions in detail. If you want links to the candidates’ websites, you can find those at ViennaVotes.com.

Another way to study them is from the economist’s perspective:  Follow the money.   And that’s exactly with the Virginia CFDA allows you to do.  Anyone can give any amount of money to any candidate for state or local office in Virginia.  The only catch is that the donations have to be made public.  From this we can tell a) how much money they raised, b) in what amounts, and c) from what sources.

You can go directly to the State Board of Elections to access the data, starting from this page.  Just search for the candidate’s name, usually.  But you can also go to the Virginia Public Access Project, and find the data in an easier-to-access form.  In particular, you can work though the data for these five candidates starting from this page.  These numbers will reflect the state of each campaign’s finances as of March 31, 2019 (the last date of the prior quarter).  Unfortunately, we will not get the next quarter of data until roughly 7/15/2019, well after the June 11 primary election.

How much money?

Here’s how their finances looked as of 3/31/2019, the most recent data available.    Walter Alcorn had received far more donations than any of the other candidates and had much more cash on hand.

(About the third candidate, say “Family South” as a rhyme for “Shyamili Hauth”.)

In what amounts?

A second question of interest is the contrast between smaller and large donations.  Is the campaign running on a handful of large donations, or a larger number of smaller donations? The Virginia Public Access project tabulates the donations by over and under $100, so let’s run with that.

Just a glance at the table shows substantial differences across candidates.

  • Only the first three candidates have more than 100 separate donors.  Messick had 29, and Parker had just three.
  • The two loans show are loans from the candidates themselves.  This suggests that a considerable portion of these campaigns may be self-funded.

If I use the $100 cutoff to signal “small contributions”, and focus on the orange bars (the percent of funds received), Dodd is primarily financed by small contributions.  Just over half her money has come from small contributions.  Both Hauth and Messick have a significant number of small contributions.  But only about 4% of Alcorn’s money (and none of Parker’s money) came from small contributions.

Who contributed?

Here’s where this gets a bit tricky, and sometimes a bit subjective.  Let me do this in reverse order, because that’s easier.

Maggie Parker was entirely self-funded as of 3/31/2019.   She had paid for her entire campaign herself.

Parker Messick was mostly self-funded, with about three-quarters of the money for his campaign coming out of his own pocked as either donations or loans.  The remaining donations are mid-sized donations from family and a few others.

Shyamili Hauth funded about half of her campaign to that point out-of-pocket or via donations from her family.  Her largest single “corporate” donation appears to have been from a media firm who did some work for her in setting up campaign materials.  There was a single $600 contribution from a lawyer in one of the prestigious downtown law firms.  Almost everything else appears to be small contributions from (e.g.) retirees.

Laurie Dodd was largely self-funded with about 60% of her total funding coming from herself or (judging by name and occupation) her father.  Her largest single contribution after that appears to be $300 from a lawyer who has made several small contributions to Democratic candidates.

Walter Alcorn’s finances took a little while to decipher.  He is not self-funded, with about 8% of his funds appearing to come from himself and his immediate family.

The single largest donor — more than $13,000 — is the Consumer Technology Association.  That was a puzzler, until I figured out that he’s a Vice-President there, and his organization both donated $10K and provided about $3K worth of services (for some type of event).

Although he had a few large donations, what I saw as the most interesting aspect of his finances is that he was the only candidate with direct and indirect ties to the outgoing Board of Supervisors.  He receive $1K from Sharon Bulova’s PAC,  his largest personal donor also had made a small donation to Katherine Hudgins, he himself had made a small contribution to Hudgins campaign, and so on.

Summary

Based on the finances as of 3/31/2019, there is a qualitative difference between Candidate Alcorn and the other candidates.  Much more money, far more large donors, the organization of which he is an executive is the largest single donor, and numerous ties to the outgoing (more-or-less pro-development) Board of Supervisors.  Alcorn has pledged that he will not take money from Hunter Mill developersWith large contributions and endorsements from Gerry Connolly and Sharon Bulova, I can only view him as the establishment candidate.

Dodd’s campaign is largely self-funded (as of 3/31/2019), but was characterized by a large number of small donations. If Alcorn is the “big money” in the race, she is definitely the “small money”.  She has adopted a clear policy against what she terms “unwise development”, and has pledged to take no money from any developers.  Her finances suggest that this is a grass-roots campaign.

Hauth’s campaign, like Dodd’s, is largely self-funded supplemented by a large number of small donors. Her campaign emphasizes issues related to development, such as environmental quality and affordable housing.  As with Dodd’s campaign, her finances suggest that a significant grass-roots support.

Messick and Parker were both primarily self-funded as of 3/21/2019.  Messick has run an aggressively anti-development campaign, including a pledge to stop big development.  By contrast, Maggie Parker literally works for a developer, and is running on the idea of quality development, among other things.

My conclusion based on the money, and my narrow focus on limiting development in this area:  If you want a strongly anti-development candidate with a significant chance of winning, I guess my money would be on Laurie Dodd.  By contrast, for pure strength of anti-development policy, my money would go to Parker Messick, but so far he doesn’t have the donor base that Dodd has.  Hauth seems like a fine candidate with broad support but is more focused on issues of environment and equity than on development per se.  I have nothing against her.

Based on the candidate’s debate, in my opinion, Alcorn had the best command of the facts and the policies.  But my guess, based largely on his endorsements, is that a vote for Alcorn is more-or-less a vote for the status quo in terms of development policy in Fairfax County.