San Marcos Mayor Susan Narvaiz, center, shown with Hays County Precinct 3 Commissioner Will Conley, left, and Economic San Marcos Development San Marcos Executive Director Amy Madison, right, at a recent Hays County Commissioners Court meeting. Photo by Sean Batura.
By SEAN BATURA
The four living former mayors of San Marcos offered a variety of opinions about the cost of running for that office in light of campaign finance reports revealing that Mayor Susan Narvaiz spent $100,000 on her 2008 campaign.
Narvaiz reported spending $99,757.84 between July 1, 2008, and June 30, 2009. Close to half of those expenditures, $42,530.85, were spent in the first six months of 2009, a period starting nearly two months after the election.
“When you’re trying to win an election, you don’t turn money down,” said former San Marcos Mayor Robert Habingreither, a Texas State science professor.
Narvaiz’s 2008 campaign, along with accounts from Habingreither and former Mayor David Chiu (2000-2002), indicate that more money is available to incumbent mayors seeking re-election, thereby making re-election campaigns more expensive.
“I was offered money when I was the mayor, by different people,” Habingreither said. “The way that they would say it to you is, ‘We’d like to contribute to your campaign.’ And I would tell them, ‘I don’t have a campaign, I’m already the mayor.’ I didn’t do it for money. I did it because I had issues with the way the city was run. And I think that most people – especially (those) that run for a mayoral office – run because they’ve got their eyes on something else.”
Habingreither said he spent about $8,000 to defeat Chiu in 2002, then spent about five times as much in 2004, only to lose to Narvaiz by 123 votes.
“I think I spent around $40,000 or $45,000 the second time (I ran),” Habingreither said. “I spent a lot of money, and I didn’t win.”
Likewise, Chiu said he spent more money to lose against Habingreither in 2002 than he spent to become mayor by defeating Ed Mihalkanin in 2000.
“I do know that my re-election cost a whole lot more,” Chiu said.
State law requires cities to maintain campaign finance records for only two years after an election. Chiu and former Mayor Kathy Morris (1988-1996) both said they don’t remember even approximately how much money they spent on their various campaigns. Nor did they wish to comment on the current mayor’s spending.
Morris said she has been “out of the loop too long,” and Chui said it would be “grossly unfair” for him to evaluate another person’s campaign without being involved in it and without knowing more.
“I think it’s foolhardy to evaluate something that you don’t have a direct hand on,” Morris said. “And I don’t. I haven’t run for office, I haven’t worked with anybody who has lately, and I have no knowledge. So I’m totally unqualified.”
However, former Mayor Billy Moore (1996-2000) said, “I do watch with dismay the increasing amount of money needed to run.”
Moore said he raised less than $5,000 running for mayor and spent less than $4,000 in his campaigns. Moore said most contributions he received were less than $50. Moore said the largest contribution he received was $300.
“All during my tenure, I would just have enough money to have an officeholder account and a treasurer,” Moore said.
Moore said he refused contributions from developers, construction companies, engineering firms, and other companies the city might hire. Habingreither said contractors who are “really straight” and “do good work for the city” give money to a candidate they “respect” without wishing to buy influence, although, he said, that’s not always true.
“If money changes hands under the table, who would ever know it?” Habingreither said. “These people are good at that. It’s a filthy business, and a lot of times people are in it for personal gain.”
The single largest contributor to Narvaiz was local entrepreneur and investor T.P. Gilmore, who made three contributions totaling $14,465.22. Narvaiz also received $5,000 from Bartlett, IL, homebuilder James P. Bigelow, $5,000 from Houston developer Charles Leyendecker, and another $5,000 from CB&B Realty in San Marcos.
Narvaiz spent at least $93,000 more than the combined efforts of her two 2008 challengers, David Newman and Daniel McCarthy. Newman’s campaign finance reports leading up to the election showed that he raised $2,331.28 and spent $5,113.65. Newman filed a final report in August showing no additional contributions or expenditures, but $4,527.08 in outstanding loans. McCarthy signed a statement with the Texas Ethics Commission saying he would not raise or spend more than $500.
Narvaiz swamped her competition not only by gathering large contributions, but also in contributions of $50 or less. For the year ending on June 30, 2009, Narvaiz reported $2,600 in contributions of $50 or less. Newman reported $1.38.
State law does not require candidates and officeholders to specify precisely when and from whom they receive contributions of $50 or less.
“With a fundraiser, a lot of times what people will do, is they’ll put cash money in a container so that their name is not tied to it,” Habingreither said. “Somebody could have put $1,000 in there in twenty-dollar bills, but you’d never know it, because it was just collected in the center of a table at a fundraiser … We always put a fishbowl in the middle of the table, and you’d come back with a couple thousand dollars in it … some of them were tens, some of them were twenties, some of them were fifties … That’s why people will do that – they don’t want their name tied to it.”
Though she spent about 13 times more than the combined expenses of her two opponents, Narvaiz won 6,451 votes (50.08 percent) to Newman’s 3,868 (30.03) percent and McCarthy’s 2,563 (19.89 percent). Narvaiz would have been forced into a run-off election against Newman if she had received nine fewer votes.
“It takes a lot more money to win than to lose,” said Jason Stanford, president of Austin-based Democratic political consulting firm Stanford Campaigns. “That’s no surprise. The candidates who have the most money usually win. And to get 20 percent (of the vote) or thereabouts is no great achievement. If you have a couple of people in there against any officeholder, then they’re probably going to get 15 to 20 percent. If the choice is the devil you know and the devil you don’t, sometimes people just would rather go with the devil they don’t, because they’re not really thrilled with the devil they know. It doesn’t indicate any huge groundswell of opposition to the mayor, and it doesn’t indicate that she ran a bad campaign. In fact, winning without a runoff against two candidates is not easy. That’s why she had to spend considerably more than that.”
Stanford said the proportion of money spent among candidates running for election will not necessarily be reflected in the ratio of votes cast.
“Even if you spend as efficiently and as wisely as possible, there’s a declining return on money after a while,” Stanford said. “You could … make the argument that if (Narvaiz) avoided a runoff by only nine votes, then she spent her money extremely efficiently, that she did exactly what was required to accomplish her goal. Any idiot … can spend no money and do something. The winning margin is the expensive part in American politics.”
Narvaiz said that when she ran for reelection, she and her contributors forecast that her campaign would need $75,000 to $85,000.
“The criticism I have is that (Narvaiz) didn’t raise enough money,” Stanford said. “She knew that, too, because she took out a loan. You don’t take out a loan because you’ve raised enough money, you take out a loan because you’re short on money in your campaign.”
Narvaiz took out a $20,000 loan at a three-percent interest rate from her sister-in-law, Kelly Clifford of Helotes, TX, last August. The mayor paid off the loan this year.
Stanford said spending $5,000 to run for city office is equivalent to “not even trying to win,” adding that part of the reason Newman and McCarthy lost was because they did not raise enough money.Email | Print