It’s already a lot, and it could be a whole lot more.
State Sen. John Whitmire is kicking off his mayoral campaign with a $10 million war chest, most of it drawn from the money he has amassed over decades in the Legislature.
The campaign balance dwarfs the resources of his opponents, but it could renew debate about how much of that money the city’s campaign finance laws allow him to use.
Whitmire’s first mayoral campaign finance report, filed Tuesday, shows $1.1 million in new donations between his formal campaign launch in November and the end of the year. The report’s staggering number, though, is the amount of cash he reports having on hand: about $10.1 million.
The sum makes him the overwhelming financial heavyweight in the race — no other candidate had more than $1 million on hand as of last summer. Other candidates, including former county clerk Chris Hollins, former city councilmember Amanda Edwards, and attorney Lee Kaplan, are expected to share more current numbers Tuesday, as well.
It is not yet clear how much of that money Whitmire will seek to spend. Sue Davis, a consultant for Whitmire, said the report shows the full balance of his campaign account, filed with both the state and the city. The campaign started earmarking money raised for the mayor’s race at the end of last year — the $1.1 million — which “has more than enough to start this year,” Davis said.
The move, though, may test the enforcement of an ordinance that was intended to limit how much money raised for non-city accounts can be used for city campaigns. The council members who introduced and passed the law in 2005 said it was meant to cap that amount at $10,000. It was intended to treat non-city accounts like any other political entity that seeks to support a city campaign: subject to a $10,000 cap on donations.
Former councilmember Gordon Quan, who spearheaded the ordinance, confirmed the intent behind the law in an email to the Chronicle last week. The law says candidates can use money raised for a non-city public office “in an amount not to exceed the maximum contribution that the candidate may accept from a single donor,” which is $5,000 for individuals and $10,000 for political groups.
In practice, though, the city has not enforced the ordinance that stringently. A decade later, in 2015, then-City Attorney Dave Feldman told candidates they could use the amount of money under the cap from each individual donor, rather than from the account as a whole.
That allowed then-State Rep. Sylvester Turner to use $900,000 from his legislative account to start his mayoral bid, which ultimately proved successful.
City Attorney Arturo Michel, who returned to City Hall in December 2020, was serving his first stint as the city’s top lawyer in 2005, when Council first passed the law. The legal department, under his leadership at the time, helped craft the ordinance.
Michel, though, suggested Tuesday that Feldman’s interpretation was sound in its reading of the law’s actual language.
Feldman’s “determination reflected the language used in the code when adopted and as exists now,” Michel said. That language is less supportive of the more stringent interpretation, he added.
“Texas law is clear that statements made by members of a legislative governing body are not evidence of collective intent of the body and do not override the language used in the law,” Michel said.
The law has not been thoroughly tested in court, and it is possible another candidate could seek a ruling limiting what Whitmire can spend from his Senate funds. No candidate publicly has suggested they will do so.
See here for the July finance reports; Whitmire had not yet filed a city report. There are as of Tuesday night a number of January reports available on the city’s campaign finance webpage – you know I’m looking for them – but none of the Mayoral candidates had them up there yet.
The story references a lawsuit filed by Chris Bell, who was a Mayoral candidate in 2015, to challenge the cash on hand total that Turner claimed. There was a separate federal lawsuit filed to challenge the city’s blackout period for fundraising – in those days, you couldn’t fundraise outside of an election year – and after the plaintiff won an injunction the city basically agreed with his position to strengthen their case against Bell, who eventually dropped his suit.
I think the city should enforce its laws, though I can’t say with complete confidence that they’d win in court if there is a challenge over this limitation. I don’t know if someone will file a complaint to stop Whitmire from using his entire treasury, but if I were advising Whitmire I’d suggest he go through the last five or ten years’ worth of reports, claim the money that would clearly be under the limit, and then dare anyone to sue him. He’d still end up with a ton of cash and a plausible claim to already be in compliance. We’ll see what happens.