Passing the Hat | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Passing the Hat

Big contributions dominate the race for campaign cash



On Nov. 24, Pittsburgh developers and horse breeders Stanley and Ira Gumberg spent $976,185 buying a mare named Ebaraya at a British thoroughbred auction. On Dec. 9, they made a comparatively modest investment, contributing $25,000 each to apparent mayoral candidate Bob O'Connor.

The Gumbergs' wagers were the biggest contributions last year to any of the three major contestants in the May 17 Democratic mayoral primary. But they were by no means the only big bets. Nearly three-quarters of all the funds raised last year by former City Councilor O'Connor, county Prothonotary Michael Lamb (who has announced his candidacy), and City Councilor Bill Peduto (a presumptive candidate) came from donors who gave $1,000 or more, according to recent filings with the county Elections Division. (A fourth candidate, Squirrel Hill businessman Les Ludwig, hasn't reported any contributions.) The biggest war chest, O'Connor's, comes thanks to 13 contributions of $10,000 or more.



Unlike Pittsburgh, most major cities have limits on the size of campaign contributions in municipal races, says Barry Kauffman, executive director of the watchdog group Common Cause Pennsylvania. "In most cities, anything over $1,000 would be banned," says Kauffman. Why? "These kinds of contributions are certainly not done out of the generosity of a person's heart," he says. "They're certainly made in the expectation of future access and future favors."


If that's true, local real-estate developers apparently have high hopes for O'Connor. Eight of his 13 five-figure donors were developers, many of whom have asked the city for zoning variances, tax breaks, subsidies or infrastructure assistance in the past. As a city councilor, O'Connor typically voted for development aid. And in 2001, when O'Connor was in the midst of his second failed mayoral run, he led the charge to change the city's property levy, which had previously taxed land at six times the rate of buildings, to a flat rate. As a result, anybody holding a piece of vacant land -- as developers often do -- saved about $20,000 in city taxes per year for every $1 million in assessed value.


O'Connor declined to be interviewed for this story.


During the next mayor's term, a state panel will almost certainly give one lucky developer the right to build a lucrative slots casino within the city. Two contestants for a piece of that action have donated to O'Connor. Developer Charles Zappala gave $10,000, and an executive of First City Co., a development firm owned by other Zappala family members, gave another $10,000. Parking lot owners John and Merrell Stabile, who hope to build a casino near the stadiums, each gave $3,500.


O'Connor may hope to tap into the state's biggest campaign fund-raising network: the one controlled by Gov. Ed Rendell, for whom O'Connor worked during 2003 and 2004. He's already logged $6,000 from top Rendell backer Steven Frobouck, a retired telecommunications executive from Fox Chapel who gave or loaned $668,000 to Rendell's 2002 campaign.


Rendell's 2002 Democratic primary opponent, state Treasurer Bob Casey Jr., gave $1,000 to Lamb's campaign, suggesting that the mayor's race could reflect rivalries in the state party. Lamb's biggest contributors were himself, his father, family friends and a few businessmen he says "care about Pittsburgh and want to help."


Chamber of Commerce Chairman David Matter gave $500 to Lamb's campaign, and Matter's Oxford Development boss Eddie Lewis gave another $500. But talk that Lamb is the Chamber's candidate isn't borne out by his fund-raising last year, which includes relatively little money from local business leaders. "We've really focused attention on [business leaders] since Jan. 1, and we're doing well with that group," says Lamb. The extent of his success won't be evident until May 6, when candidates must file updated campaign finance reports.


Lamb got modest contributions from long-time supporters of lame duck Mayor Tom Murphy, and from Republican fund-raiser Evans Rose, suggesting that he may be able to tap into some rich veins.


Last year, Peduto pushed legislation that would have kept city candidates from accepting more than $2,000 from an individual donor, or $4,000 from a political action committee. Only one of his own contributors exceeded those proposed limits, and then only by $20. But at a Jan. 31 event at the Schenley Park ice rink, Peduto challenged supporters to raise $200,000 by mid-February, toward a goal of spending $500,000 on a possible mayoral run. Now he says he's asking well-heeled backers to kick in $5,000 each. "I'm calling them the one-percenters," he says, because "$5,000 is only one percent of my total." He won't turn away $10,000 contributions, he adds. But he tries to avoid taking huge gifts, so there isn't "anybody who could say, 'Oh, Peduto is the lapdog of so-and-so.'"


Or stable horse, presumably.

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