Development magnates and labor unions have already cut five- and six-figure checks to candidates for Allegheny County executive, and millions of dollars are expected to flow in the first months of 2023.
The avalanche of money preceding the first competitive race for county chief executive since 2011 has some public officials calling for limits on campaign contributions similar to laws that cover City of Pittsburgh and federal elections.
“I don’t think it is fair for a few stakeholder groups and individuals to tip the scales for the most influential elected position in this region,” said county Councilman Tom Duerr, a Bethel Park Democrat who introduced a bill that would cap contributions to candidates for county offices. “The initial disclosures show a desperate need for campaign finance reform.”
Duerr’s bill would install a contribution limit that mirrors the limits imposed in federal campaigns, which change from year to year depending on inflation. Through 2024, the federal limit is $3,300 per election for individuals and $5,000 per election for PACs. The county limits would not go into effect until after the 2023 election cycle.
The bill, introduced in December, is awaiting consideration in the council’s government reform committee, chaired by Councilwoman Bethany Hallam. Hallam said she supports the bill and plans to bring it up in committee in the next few months. Both Duerr and Hallam said they believe a majority of council would vote to pass the bill if it comes to a vote.
It may require a supermajority to become law, though: County Executive Rich Fitzgerald said he would likely veto the bill because it could put county officeholders at a disadvantage in non-county races.
Unlimited checks, outsized influence
The unlimited nature of donations gives county-level elections (like state races) a different dynamic than City of Pittsburgh or federal contests, which are run under contribution limits. Government ethics advocates say unfettered contributions tend to diminish the interests of everyday voters who don’t bring a lot of money into the political arena.
“When special interests can afford to put this money into races, it marginalizes the people with regular-sized wallets,” said Pat Christmas, the policy director at the Philadelphia-based good government group Committee of Seventy. “Most folks are chipping in 25 or 50 bucks. So what does it say about who our public officials are paying attention to if they win office by folks who are writing five- or six-figure checks?”
Multiple executive candidates, including city Controller Michael Lamb, state Rep. Sara Innamorato and attorney Dave Fawcett, raised more than $100,000 in 2022. But it was county Treasurer John Weinstein’s finance disclosure that drew the most notice, owing to its high concentration of money coming from a small number of individuals.
Weinstein reported raising $416,000 in 2022, and 70% of it came from just five donors, out of 18 in all, which included executives of development, engineering and construction, real estate and parking firms.
Charles Hammel, president of the Pitt Ohio trucking company, cut a check for $100,000. Hammel did not respond to requests for comment. Asked about his relationship to Hammel, Weinstein called him “a very good friend of mine” and described him as a “cornerstone” of recent development in the Strip District.
Weinstein suggested that Hammel gave $100,000 to his campaign out of concern for the county at large, to make sure “Pittsburgh stays the valuable jewel that it is for Western Pennsylvania and Allegheny County.” Responding to questions about the possibility of major donors influencing his administration, Weinstein said, “There’s nothing that the county executive could ever do for Chuck Hammel.”
About 40% of Weinstein’s 2022 fundraising came from labor union political action committees [PACs], including $112,000 from Steamfitters Local Union 449. Kenneth Broadbent, the Steamfitters business agent, told PublicSource the union supports Weinstein because he is “not only someone who is labor friendly but someone who is business friendly” and that the county should be more open to fracking. Weinstein said in an interview he’d be open to new fracking projects in the county.
Khalif Ali, executive director of the government reform group Common Cause PA, said such large donations can lead to “unfettered access” to public officials for the donors, “and with unfettered access, in my mind, comes influence.”
“The county executive position is extremely powerful, extremely influential when it comes to economic development in Allegheny County,” Ali said. “There are a lot of decisions that can be influenced and nudged a particular way with high-dollar donations.”
Weinstein said he would not give major donors preferential treatment if he takes office, saying, “I don’t keep score. … I’m not that kind of person where the money will influence me.”
He characterized his donor base as “a cross section of support from every corner of the county and from people of all walks of life, from bus drivers and janitors to business owners.”
His fundraising disclosure for 2022 does not include any janitors or bus drivers.
“There are a number of different reasons why folks will write big checks to candidates,” Christmas said. “At the local level, where there are not only [government] contracts at play, but other potentially lucrative decisions, especially regarding development, that would make it worthwhile for someone to write a check to a local official.”
Weinstein declined to comment on Duerr’s reform bill, saying he had not seen it. He said he would support campaign finance limits in general only if rules came from the state level.
Gathering support for limits
“When you see individuals and groups donating six figures, it speaks volumes to needing to take a hard look at our campaign finance law,” Duerr said, suggesting that eye-popping figures in this year’s election could spur legislative action on an issue that is hardly new.
Hallam, whose support is critical in moving the bill out of committee, said the reforms are badly needed and predicted they could find wide support in the 15-member council, partly because few of the members ever receive large contributions.
County Council races tend to play second (or third) fiddle to countywide or citywide races, and most members only raise a few thousand dollars for their elections. Hallam, who has become something of a progressive star since her 2019 election and is running for reelection to an at-large council seat, raised just over $10,000 last year.
Fitzgerald said in an interview he would likely veto the bill. Council could then override his veto with support from at least 10 of 15 members. Last summer, council overrode a Fitzgerald veto for the first time ever, banning fracking in county parks and highlighting council’s recent independent streak.
“There’s no question money in politics has an influence, sometimes an undue influence,” Fitzgerald said. “I am absolutely for campaign finance reform.”
Fitzgerald said he opposes the bill solely because he thinks campaign finance limits need to come from the state level, or else they could put local politicians at a disadvantage in the state. While politicians from other counties can raise unlimited sums, he explained, Allegheny County officeholders would be much more limited, putting them in an unfavorable position if they want to run for statewide office.
Christmas said the political prospects of local officeholders should not be a factor when it comes to reining in campaign finance. “Campaign finance limits are an anti-corruption measure, and if an official wants to run for office in a different jurisdiction, that’s not the concern of Allegheny County.”
Aside from Weinstein, most of the candidates to replace Fitzgerald said they support Duerr’s bill.
Innamorato, who raised more money than any candidate from contributions of less than $250, said the lack of limits “allows for certain individuals or voices to be dominant.” She did supplement her small-dollar prowess with a $15,000 contribution from the PAC associated with Service Employees International Union Local 32BJ.
Fawcett cited his role as an attorney in a case against A.T. Massey Coal Co. that went to the U.S. Supreme Court in which he argued that a judge should not have heard a case involving a party who made large campaign contributions to the judge. He said “campaign finance reform is essential if we want to be able to know our local officials are doing things for the right reasons, not because they stand to gain financially.”
Fawcett has a ready alternative to large campaign contributions: He loaned his own campaign $150,000 at the end of 2022.
County Councilwoman Olivia Bennett, County Human Services project manager Erin McClelland and Lamb each said they support the proposed limits.
A familiar loophole awaits
If the county enacts contribution limits, political spenders could still exploit the same loophole they have used to skirt limits on city and federal races. Donors can give unlimited amounts of money to PACs or make independent expenditures to boost a particular candidate through advertising and field work. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled in recent decades that the government can’t limit independent political spending.
This played out in Pittsburgh’s 2021 mayoral primary. Working around the city’s strict contribution limits, labor unions poured hundreds of thousands into PACs supporting both Bill Peduto and Ed Gainey. The PACs showered voters with campaign mailers and advertising, with none of the money ever entering the candidates’ accounts. Under federal rules, outside PACs are not allowed to coordinate with candidates or their campaigns, preventing them from aligning their advertising messages or planning an efficient field operation.
Acknowledging the PAC loophole, Duerr maintained that it’s worth forcing big money out of campaigns and into independent expenditures.
“It’s a significant hurdle for campaigns, being unable to communicate with independent expenditures to craft their message and coordinate field work,” Duerr said. “Every campaign would rather have money to spend at their discretion.”
While the city’s campaign finance ordinance does not specifically ban coordination between campaigns and PACs, Duerr said he will try to ban it in county legislation.
Hallam said major reforms are needed at the federal level, but “we’re county elected officials and we do what we can do at the county level to take a stand against incredible spending that is going into county races.”
Christmas, nodding to the “tough set of legal circumstances” that the Supreme Court has dealt to localities wishing to rein in campaign money, said the county should nonetheless do what it can.
“Opportunities for reform are not out there all the time,” Christmas said. “And if in Allegheny County right now we are having big checks being written by a number of different special interests to a number of different candidates, what better time to have a discussion about whether or not we need some actual rules and actual enforcement?”
Charlie Wolfson is PublicSource’s local government reporter and a Report for America corps member. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @chwolfson.
This story was fact-checked by Dakota Castro-Jarrett.
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However, only about .1% of the people who read our stories contribute to our work financially. Our newsroom depends on the generosity of readers like yourself to make our high-quality local journalism possible, and the costs of the resources it takes to produce it have been rising, so each member means a lot to us.
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