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The incumbents’ advantage

Is it about to become that much harder to vote incumbent city officials out of office?

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The already difficult task of ousting incumbent Houston officeholders likely has become even tougher.

City elected officials now have an extended runway to accumulate cash before returning to the campaign trail, thanks to a voter-approved extension of term limits and the elimination of Houston’s fundraising blackout during non-election seasons.

Experts agreed the changes could be a boon to incumbents, though were split over the magnitude of that boost.

“It’s huge, hugely significant,” Texas Southern University political scientist Jay Aiyer said. “We’re, basically, giving people an eight-year term.”

Local government finance lawyer Neil Thomas, however, characterized the shift as marginal.

“It certainly gives candidates and officeholders a longer period of time to raise funds, but incumbents always have an advantage,” Thomas said.

[…]

Under the new regulations, candidates will be allowed to solicit donations year-round, though the city’s $5,000 individual contribution limit and $10,000 cap for political action committees per election cycle remain. Thomas said that cap mitigates the impact of abolishing the blackout.

“I would think that any additional amounts that they might raise would really affect any advantage an incumbent might have only marginally, because the base limits still remain in effect,” Thomas said. “Yes, there may be some events that wouldn’t otherwise occur, but I don’t see any big change.”

Thomas and local fundraiser Pat Strong also noted that elected officials regularly draw down campaign funds for officeholder expenses, so not all of the money raised over four years necessarily will accumulate in the form of a campaign war chest.

“Now that they can raise money year-round, they can actually enhance their outreach by reaching into their campaign funds rather than relying on taxpayer funds to cover their officeholder expenses,” said Strong, who raised money for mayor-elect Sylvester Turner.

I think the individual and PAC contribution limit is a key mitigating factor here. Incumbents can hit up all the usual suspects for max contributions, but they can only do it once. I can tell you from my experience looking through finance reports that many PACs don’t come close to maxing out on most candidates. They may not care to, or they may not have the resources to be able to. That may actually change, since under the old system they were getting hit up twice as often in a four-year period. The point is, there’s only so much you can wring out of the frequent donors. Any candidate will still need a network of friends and associates and other like-minded folks to be able to raise the kind of cash that is needed to make oneself known in a city this size. You could argue that having four years to develop and exploit one’s network, with no restrictions on when you can ask for money, will benefit candidates who get out there and do the hard work of meeting and talking to people, especially if they can operate on a shoestring during the inactive time between elections.

But the truth is that we don’t know yet how this will play out. Hell, we haven’t even sworn in the first class of candidates elected under these new rules yet. Bear in mind that for a long time, it was virtually impossible to lose an election under the old term limits rules. From 1993 to 2009 – nine elections – only two incumbent candidates ever lost a re-election bid. In the next three elections, the last three of the two-year terms era, six incumbents lost. I guarantee you, nobody saw that coming. I suspect that with four year terms, the days of incumbents skating by with at most minimal opposition are over, because there are now fewer opportunities to run and less reason to wait till someone is termed out. I could be wrong about that – like I said, nobody really knows. Ask me again in 2019 and 2023 and we’ll see what we think then.

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4 Comments

  1. We’re a Fortune 500 capitol, leave the wacko tea party ideology at home. Do some actual critical thinking and research on issues.

    Having compared cities and counties, there are a lot of council members that are nothing more than dining room furniture.

    Hopefully the term limit change will filter out candidates that continually run, yet have no platform or understanding of basic public policy.

  2. Paul Kubosh says:

    “dining room furniture” I love that quote. I couldn’t agree with you more.

  3. Paul,

    If the next council doesn’t pass at least two of the following by the end of 2016, they should all have challengers in 2019.

    -Paid sick leave ordinance for private sector employers
    -1 month, 100% paid fmla for city employees
    -Ban the box ordinance (criminal justice reform)
    -Shared city-county public bank
    -Schedules that word ordinance
    -Allow voters to vote on the revenue cap. No public safety exception, that’s a waste of time. We want a vote on whether it should be repealed.

    All major US cities already have done this, it’s ridiculous that we have to wait for these council members to get their act together.

  4. Julain Deleon says:

    Two, four year terms are good for the City of Houston.