Say you pick up the phone and the voice on the other end says, "Hi, I'm Bob O'Connor. I want to be your mayor. And I want you to give me at least $10,000 to help make that happen." Say "Sure!" and you could join an elite group of five-figure political givers who have given the former City Council president a huge lead in campaign cash.
On May 6, candidates filed reports on what they raised and spent through May 2 of this year. O'Connor reported raising $840,000. His two chief rivals, combined, raised half that. Allegheny County Prothonotary Michael Lamb reported raising $253,000, and City Councilor Bill Peduto listed $161,000.
Last year, 13 people, partnerships and political committees gave $10,000 or more to O'Connor's campaign. Now his five-figure club numbers 26. Political analysts agree that five-figure donations -- illegal in most states -- buy the ear of the candidate, at the very least. If that's true, and if front-runner O'Connor wins the May 17 Democratic primary and subsequent general election, then he'll be hearing a lot from top developers and Harrisburg powerbrokers.
Last year, O'Connor's campaign got $50,000 from partners in the development company J.J. Gumberg Co. Developers continue to pony up. This year, Columbus-based developer Silver Drive Partners gave $20,000. Developers Gregg Perelman of Walnut Capital, James Rudolph of McKnight Development, Anthony Ross of Ross Development, and Jack Piatt of Millcraft Industries each gave more than $10,000, as did a partnership controlled by the heads of Oxford Development.
Political players close to Gov. Ed Rendell have also given generously to O'Connor's bid. Former state Treasurer Barbara Hafer's campaign committee gave him $37,000, and Stephen Frobouck, a retired communications magnate and Rendell pal, added $23,500.
State Sen. Vince Fumo, of Philadelphia, reportedly faces a federal investigation into activities of nonprofits he controls. Nonetheless, a political committee controlled by Fumo, called Pennsylvania 2100, gave O'Connor's campaign $10,000. Another committee called Public Service PAC, to which Fumo is the largest contributor, gave an identical amount.
But perhaps the Public Service PAC donation should be credited to developer Charles Zappala, a Fumo ally who last year gave $10,000 to that PAC -- the same amount the PAC gave O'Connor this year. Last year Zappala directly donated $10,000 to O'Connor's campaign. He and Bill Lieberman have said they're hoping to invest in a Pittsburgh-area casino. Lieberman is a longtime O'Connor backer, but is sitting out this race because he heads the Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority, which oversees city finances.
Mayoral rival Michael Lamb's five-figure club, by contrast, could hold a meeting in a large bathroom stall. Construction contractor Wyatt Inc. gave $16,000.
Lawyer Charles Queenan, a key board member of the business-backing Allegheny Conference on Community Development, contributed $10,000, as did his law partner, Peter Kalis. Other than that, Lamb, his father, and family friend Charles Getz are the club's only members.
Bill Peduto, who has sought to limit campaign contributions to $4,000, reported just three five-figure givers: Perelman of Walnut Capital, William Benter of Acusis Medical Transcription, and Oakland resident Lee Simonds, an arts patron. Big money "tilts the balance away from the people," he complains. Does he have a chance against O'Connor's money machine? "It makes it an uphill battle, obviously."