The crowded, highly competitive San Antonio mayor’s race this year was the most expensive in city history, and for the first time included significant third-party money, most of which spent in support of Mayor Ivy Taylor and former state Sen. Leticia Van De Putte, who emerged from a field of 14 candidates to face off in a June runoff that Taylor won.
This year’s race included $4.38 million in direct contributions and spending by the top four candidates, and hundreds of thousands of dollars more spent by third-party interest groups, including the San Antonio police and firefighter unions and the conservative Koch brothers, who don’t even live in Texas.
This year’s spending, even without the third-party funding, was more than double what was spent in 2005, the previous record year, when retired appeals court judge Phil Hardberger defeated City Councilmember Julian Castro in a runoff by 3,800 votes.
There were seven candidates in the 2005 race and 14 candidates in the 2015 race, but in each instance it was the major candidates who accounted for virtually all of the spending: Hardberger and Castro in 2005, and the four top candidates this year, with Taylor defeating former Van de Putte in a runoff after former state Rep. Mike Villarreal and former County Commissioner Tommy Adkisson were eliminated in the first round of voting.
Individual and corporate donations are limited to $1,000 in City of San Antonio elections, but the cost of direct mail and television campaigns are leading campaigns not only to seek increasingly larger sums of campaign contributions, but also to appeal to third-party interest groups that will independently spend significantly on candidates they support and underwrite attacks ads aimed at candidates they oppose.
A look at reports for different filing periods, going back to Jan. 1 of this year, shows that Mayor Taylor received $282,124 and spent $274,190 through June 30. These figures cover her campaign for the May 9 general election and the June 13 runoff.
During the same six-month period, Van de Putte raised $1.08 million and spent $1.24 million. Villarreal, who ran a nearly year-long campaign, received $335,467 and spent $703,354. Adkisson raised $276,611 and spent $255,279.
Van de Putte, Taylor and Villarreal entered 2015 and the mayor’s contest with sizeable war chests. Reports filed this past Jan. 15 showed Van de Putte with $197,516, Taylor with $64,823, and Villarreal with $198,801 on hand through Dec. 31, 2014.
According to the City Clerk’s Office online portal, reports filed by Villarreal and Taylor go back to Jan. 1, 2014; Van de Putte’s first report starts on Oct. 26, a week before she lost her bid to become lieutenant governor. Adkisson’s reports date back to Dec. 27. When all spending and donations are combined from 2014 and 2015, the total spending for the top four candidates equals $4.38 million.
The Van de Putte and Taylor campaigns confirmed having no debt from the mayor’s race. Tommy Adkisson and his wife, Karen, did pull out a $10,000 loan for his campaign, which is still outstanding. Political observers say Villarreal has contacted to donors to seek contributions to offset his campaign debt or loans. Villarreal could not be reached for comment.
Interestingly, most of the other 10 candidates appear to have ignored campaign finance law and failed to file reports. None of the 10 mounted credible campaigns; some made no effort beyond getting their name on the ballot. One candidate, registered Republican Cynthia Brehm, filed a report prior to the May general election stating $80,605 in transactions, although it is unclear if she received contributions equal to that spending or spent personal funds. Brehm promoted her candidacy via billboards and yard signs.
Taylor and Van de Putte each had their share of prominent backers in the business community. A number of political action committees (PACs), specific-purpose political action committees (SPACs), and special interest groups were active contributors in this year’s campaign.
The San Antonio Police Officers Association (SAPOA) endorsed Van de Putte’s campaign, a move that many political observers saw as a rebuke of Taylor’s handling of the city’s contentious collective bargaining negotiations with the police union. The police union spent $470,000 on city races this year, according to a Brian Chasnoff column in the Express-News.
A PAC associated with the San Antonio Fire and Police Pension Fund donated $1,000 to Van de Putte. (The same PAC donated to Taylor last fall.) A number of other representing groups – not just local ones – such as the Associated General Contractors of Texas, Annie’s List, AssociPAC, JP Morgan Chase and Co., NuStar (Energy), Texas Taxi and the San Antonio Apartment Association each made one or more $1,000 donations to Van de Putte.
Notable PACs donating to Taylor included Associated Builders and Contractors, Coca-Cola Co., Valero (Energy Corp.), IBC Bank, USAA Employees, San Antonio Builders and engineering firm HDR Inc. Groups representing law firms such as Davidson Troilo Ream & Garza, Winstead PC, and Bracewell Giuliani, also, gave to Taylor’s campaign.
A few local political observers told the Rivard Report a third-party attached in some way to the Koch brothers spent several hundred thousand dollars in support of Taylor and attacking Van de Putte and Villarreal. The mayor’s campaign manager, Justin Hollis, denied the claim, and such an affiliation could not be identified in the campaign finance reports.
It could be one year before PACs and other entities associated with the Koch Brothers report their direct or indirect spending in San Antonio.
Villarreal had his share of third party funding, including the Stonewall Democrats of San Antonio, Independent Insurance Agents Of Texas, AT&T Texas, Beer Alliance of Texas, and the Union Pacific Corporation Fund for Effective Government.
Hardberger, now with the law firm of Dykema Cox Smith, remembers starting his 2005 campaign well after Castro and Councilmember Carroll Schubert had entered the race. Although he had no previous experience on City Council, Hardberger formed a base of support built in his years on the bench.
Hardberger raised $700,000 from donors, and loaned $300,000 in personal funds to his campaign, funds that he presumably paid back to himself in the ensuing four years in office. He recalls Castro also spending nearly $1 million, with Schubert spending significantly less.
“It was an expensive race even back then,” Hardberger said last week. “There was third-party funding at that time, but not as much as there is now. Third parties drive up the costs of elections, be it on a city level, state or national.”
While many people may decry the investment of PACs and special interest groups in local elections, Hardberger acknowledged there is “nothing inherently evil about them. It is a democratic way, after all.”
One issue that arose in this year’s mayoral campaign will linger in future elections, Hardberger said. The City currently has a campaign finance limit of $1,000 from either individuals or SPACs, but the state has no such limits. This rule tripped up Van de Putte, who returned some money transferred into her mayoral campaign from the account that funded her failed 2014 campaign for lieutenant governor after Villarreal filed an ethics complaint against her.
Hardberger called the City’s $1,000 limit “unrealistically low” for a growing San Antonio. Before the limit is raised, Hardberger added, the City should strengthen enforcement of the limits.
“I don’t deny that money is a factor in politics. It’s important to have a major, visible campaign,” Hardberger said. “But it’s good to have limits of some kind.”
Hardberger suggested gradually raising the contribution limit on mayoral candidates to $5,000, and the limit on Council candidates to $2,500.
“I think for San Antonio those would be realistic parameters, not forever, but it’s a good starting point,” Hardberger said.
Adkisson is proud of his grass-roots approach to campaigning for office, relying more on personal appearances than media spending. Yet, he also sees the creeping influence third-party funding is playing in local elections, making it increasingly more difficult for candidates like him to compete.
“At the start of all this, I heard from some people it would take $1 million to run for mayor,” Adkisson said. “My first thought was, that’s outrageous, but I ran anyway.”
A handful of small local businesses, non-profits and law firms contributed to Adkisson’s campaign. His only PAC donors this time around were Halliburton Co. and San Antonio Professional Firefighters. But these contributions were nowhere near the levels of the other three front-runners.
“These types of groups, they have issues of mutual interest that impact them financially,” Adkisson said. “As long as we don’t move as a community to raise public awareness about the current ways of campaign financing, it’ll be a harder thing to fix.”
Yet the candidates with the most money didn’t win in 2015. Adkisson said it helped that Taylor had adequate funding, as well as the advantage of incumbency, when she finally announced in late February that she would seek a full term.
Hardberger said Taylor went into this campaign with attributes that appealed to a cross-section of San Antonio’s voting electorate, even though barely 12 percent of registered voters turned out May 9. Turnout improved somewhat to 14% in the June 13 runoff.
“Many people saw Ivy as an honest person with lots of integrity,” said Hardberger. He cited her handling of two controversial issues, one as the District 2 Council representative and the other while serving as interim mayor.
As a council member, Taylor galvanized social conservatives who supported her opposition to the nondiscrimination ordinance. As mayor, she led the move to effectively jettison a plan to build a downtown streetcar system. Taylor emphasized economic development and improving the local workforce as key issues in her campaign.
“She was voting then her conscience. If you vote what you truly think is best for the city, it isn’t the wrong vote, even if it isn’t popular,” said Hardberger. “She was willing to say what she honestly thought, and people appreciate that.”
Hollis, who previously steered U.S. Rep. Will Hurd (R-San Antonio) to an upset of U.S. Rep. Pete Gallego (D-Alpine) in last fall’s Congressional midterm battle for District 23, said simplicity and consistency defined Taylor’s campaign. Despite her statewide political pedigree and many connections, Van de Putte still fell short by 3% in the runoff.
“Money is a nice thing to have in politics, but it doesn’t always assure a victory,” Hollis said. The rising young conservative political strategist said Taylor’s campaign was lean and stayed on point.
“We were much more efficient with the dollars we had,” he said. “We had a skeleton crew, we saved resources where we could, we talked directly to actual voters. We spent more time on getting out a positive message.”
Hollis said he felt the Van de Putte campaign relied too heavily on negative advertising and failed to take advantage of its comparatively larger staff.
“We decided early on that we’d keep our heads down, focus on our message and play our game. We didn’t spend money we didn’t have,” he added.
Christian Archer, a longtime local Democratic strategist, took over management of Van de Putte’s campaign in late February. He helped lead Hardberger to victory in 2005, and did the same for Castro in 2009. He echoed Hardberger’s sentiment that spending and donation levels between this year’s mayor’s race exceeded the 2005 race.
“That was probably the last competitive race we had until this year,” Archer said. “Because of the closeness of this year’s race, we’ll probably see another highly competitive mayor’s contest next time around.”
Archer said Taylor could be challenged by Councilmembers Ray Lopez (D6), Rey Saldaña (D4) or Ron Nirenberg (D8), all of whom easily won re-election on May 9. Archer predicted the 2017 contest probably will not be limited to those currently serving on Council – though he didn’t name any names.
Archer agreed with Hardberger that the City’s $1,000 donation limit is “extremely low” for a city the size of San Antonio.
“When the next round of annexation is done, we’ll be the fifth biggest city in the country,” Archer said. He added that the average amount of financing for a competitive mayor’s race in a city the size of San Antonio is more than what was seen this spring. Spending in the San Diego mayor’s race in 2012 totaled $10 million.
“Third party influence will have a huge impact in the years to come,” Archer predicted.
Still, Van de Putte’s status as the top fundraiser in the race wasn’t quite enough to carry her to victory.
“Leticia was coming off a bitter, partisan race for lieutenant governor. Democrats locked in behind her. She lost and then she came into this race,” Archer said. “I believe if she had not run for lieutenant governor, she would’ve won the mayor’s race by 10 points.”
*Featured/top image: Leticia Van de Putte (left) and Mayor Ivy Taylor (right) at a mayoral forum held at the UTSA Downtown Campus. Photos by Lea Thompson.