How Much Does It Cost to Win a City Council Seat?

Twenty thousand dollars may not be able to guarantee any City Council candidates a seat, but according to several campaign managers, twenty grand is the minimum amount it will cost this year to make a serious run for council. And the serious candidates are not afraid of spending it, either.

"I don't see how many you could [run for council] with less than 20 to $25,000," Ann Graham, incumbent William H. Walsh's campaign manager, said. Graham, along with other campaign managers, said that to run an effective city-wide campaign, candidates should be armed with substantial resources and funding.

"Everything has to have first-class postage," said Kenneth A. Bamberger '90, the campaign manager for incumbent Francis H. Duehay '55. "It would be insulting to the constituents for us to send something bulk-rate and ask for as $25 donation."

Whether it be bulk rate or first class, most of this year's candidates are paying steep postal bills; add to that the high cost of signs, literature, advertising, printing, buttons, bumper stickers, other expenses such as campaign staff salaries and rent for a campaign headquarters, multiply it all by inflation and it becomes the general formula of the the cost of running "the successful campaign."

But the parts to this formula vary dramatically from one candidate to the next, making the costs fluctuate for each candidate.

According to mandatory campaign finance reports, which give a basic outline of donation sources, expenditures and fundraising sums from January 1 to October 18, total expenditures of this year's hopefuls range from perpetual candidate William Jones's $0 to the substantial $31,165.31 spent by veteran politician Duehay.

The top five spenders in this year's election, as of October 18, are: Duehay ($31,165.31) Walsh ($26,706.83), Vice Mayor Kenneth E. Reeves '72 ($26,004.64), Councillor Jonathan S. Myers ($24,825.11) and Mayor Alice K. Wolf ($23,371.29).

The candidates spending the least are: Jones ($0), Vivian Kurkjian ($0), Robert Hall ($237.94), Thomas B. Watkins ($652.23) and George Spartachino (1458.25).

Despite the fact that some campaigns will spend more than $25,000 this year, the candidates' ability to reap donations from the public has been hurt by the recession, cutting campaign resources in half.

"It has been a difficult year because of the economy...People are even finding it hard to go to a fundraising event," said Jane F. Sullivan, former school committee member.

Sullivan considered distributing a humorous letter which would have asked supporters to send a small donation instead of spending the money for a ticket, babysitter and clothing to go to her fundraising party at the Marriott.

The pinch the public is feeling from the recession has had a ripple effect on Cambridge politics and is probably the biggest contributing factor to the candidates' move toward frugality this election. Walsh spent approximately $10,000 less this year than in the '89 plebiscite and Myers also reduced his spending by nearly $8,000. Top spender Duehay, however, has maintained practically the same spending habits he kept in his '89 spending budget.

"Candidates did spend less than in the last election...I've spent less than in the last two elections," Myers said. In addition to recession, Myers attributes a tightening of other candidates' purse strings to a smaller ballot. He also said he spent less this election because he "had a clearer sense this time of what [he] wanted to focus on."

Although campaign budgets have shrunk this year, there are still tremendous differences in the candidates' bottom lines--differences that can be explained by the type of campaign each candidate chooses to run.

While some candidates' potential constituency is distributed throughout Cambridge, others' support is pocketed mainly in specific neighborhoods, or wards; the more specified and bounded a constitutency is, the more the candidate can target and focus his campaigning.

"The amount a candidate spends really depends on if the candidate is running a city-wide campaign or a campaign that focuses on certain wards," Walsh said. He explained that candidates like incumbents Edward N. Cyr and Reeves can funnel the bulk of their campaign funds into specific areas while he and candidates like Councillor Walter J. Sullivan, run a broader-based city campaign.

"For me, I try to involve many different people, neighborhood by neighborhood, constituency by constituency," Duehay said.

Jane Sullivan is also running a city-wide campaign but on a considerably smaller budget--one-fourth the size of Walsh's Sullivan, out of necessity, targeted a specific group, young to upper middle-aged women, to maximize the efficacy of costly campaign mailings.

"We are definitely under-funded," said challenger Sullivan. "One letter costs 20 cents each, plus postage... We couldn't afford to send it to everyone."

No matter how well a candidate may be able to pinpoint his base of support, however, the basic costs of a campaign still remain and the need for effective and lucrative fundraising is just as important.

For many candidates, fundraising is a year-round affair, a continuous process that begins as early as the day after the last election and intensifies in the spring of the current election year. And although the methods of fundraising vary, the goal is the same--to raise as much money as possible.

"There really isn't a 'target' amount we shoot for...You just try to raise as much as you can in the time you have," Cyr said. Cyr, the eighth biggest spender at $14,532.54 in this year's election, raised money by hosting small fundraising events and dances.

Walsh managed to raise approximately $28,000 through donations and some slightly more posh revenue generators, such as a June boat cruise, which cost $3000, and a pre-election gala at the Sheraton Commander on Friday. But in spite of the pomp that surrounds many of the bigger-spending candidates' fundraising events, most candidates and campaign managers, despite their large budgets, still say they belive in a grassroots approach to building financial and political support.

"Nothing can replace a grassroots approach to campaigning," Walsh said. Despite the comfortable operating budgets of candidates like him and Duehay, or the considerably stricter financial restraints of candidates like Alfred E. Vellucci, most candidates devote much of their energy to good, old-fashioned door knocking and time-proven letter writing.

"I write letters and call personal contacts, prior donors and friends," Jane Sullivan said.

Walsh, according to manager Graham, takes a personal approach to campaigning and spends 20 to 24 hours each weekend campaigning. Duehay also makes an effort to meet the electorate, frequently visiting Harvard dorms and houses.

"I've spent 15 years working here, building credibility and integrity...That's what I base campaign on," said Cry, who can sometimes be found campaigning at T-stops.

Myers shares a similar campaign philosophy and said, "Going door-to-door is the cornerstone of my campaign... I really wanted to take the grassroots perspective, meeting people one by one, door to door."

Although the spending trend is off compared to spending during the intense 28-candidate election in 1989, the amounts many candidates are spending still approach the costs of a new car or a year's college tuition. And the reason, according to Jane sullivan, is that "it's expensive to run."

Getting a candidates's name publicly known and remembered is perhaps the biggest expenditure a candidate can make, and, across the board, campaign managers attribute the largest portion of their spending to publicity.

Campaign magnets at approximately 50 cents each, monochrome 14 by 22 inch signs at $1 each and buttons at 35 cents a piece can add up to thousands of dollars alone; candidates, however, are ready and willing to make the investment.

"A good piece of campaign literature is probably the best investment a candidate can make," Duehay said.

"Candidates want to get their names recognized... and it may be expensive," said Barbara R. Lourie, owner of Allied marketing, a Wellesley firm specializing in election paraphernalia.

Vellucci has managed to escape the exorbitant cost of becoming a house-hold name by running a "homemade" city-wide campaign. Designing his own artwork, using his own copy machine, making his own signs and gearing the information his circulars advertise to specific neighborhoods have all trimmed the costs of his campaign by thousands of dollars, Vellucci said.

"I've put out more circulars, more printing and more communication than all the other candidates put together...I'm using my 40 years of experience and not a lot of money," the successful 20-time candidate said. Vellucci has never lost an election in four decades of municipal politics.

Vellucci's no-frills attitude toward politics is shared by fellow candidates, including the big spenders, who believe that the Cambridge electorate cannot be bought by gimmicks and slogans.

"The amount of money you spend is not proportional to winning a council seat," Bamberger said.

"You can't buy votes. That went out with Tammany Hall," Graham said, referring to the powerful 19th-century New York City Democratic political machine.

But, despite the firm belief in an issues platform, candidates and campaign managers alike admit that finances do influence elections and most of them labeled the cost of a campaign with with a price tag of about $25,000. The cost of the coveted council seat, however, is one number no one is willing to guess at.

"That we'll find out on Tuesday," Duehay quipped.