Fueled by two high-spending political groups, special interests have laid out more than $630,000 on Oklahoma City Council election races, according to recently filed campaign finance reports.
The main spenders have been the Committee for Oklahoma City Momentum, which has spent about $410,000, and the Better Local Government PAC, which spent about $135,000, according to campaign finance reports filed last week.
Many are questioning the process because so much money has been spent and it's hard to determine the identities of those behind the spending.
“Big money has gotten involved to the extent it has just made a mockery of our city election,” outgoing Ward 2 Councilman Sam Bowman said at a recent city council meeting. “We're not going to slow the money down. The day has arrived and it's going to come, but people need to know who's behind the money.”
Bowman later told The Oklahoman he has had calls from several constituents upset at the special interest campaigning.
“I think people are entitled to know who they are, particularly when it gets to be money of this magnitude,” he said.
Before the March 1 primary election, 13 candidates were vying for four open council seats, which pay $12,000 a year. Those candidates, along with the groups running independent campaigns in support of candidates, raised about $1.2 million and have spent more than $1 million on the Oklahoma City Council races.
It's an unprecedented amount of money and the first time such independent groups have been involved to such an extent, Bowman said.
“It's just the new larger undisclosed groups,” he said.
Oklahoma City Momentum and Better Local Government were formed to make only independent expenditures. The groups do not give money directly to candidates, which would limit donations to $5,000. There is no limit on the independent expenditures, which can be used to purchase ads advocating for or against a candidate.
The two groups are required to list all donors of $200 or more, just as individual candidates must. The groups get around listing individual donors by naming a nonprofit corporation as its only donor. Those nonprofit corporations are not required to disclose their donors.
Oklahoma City Momentum lists A Better Oklahoma City Inc. as its sole donor of $415,000. The nonprofit was formed on Feb. 11, according to paperwork on file with the secretary of state. About a week later, Oklahoma City Momentum filed with the Oklahoma City Clerk its intention to campaign in the elections.
Better Local Government names A Voice for Responsible Government as its lone donor of $145,000. According to a secretary of state filing, the nonprofit was formed Feb. 8, just two days before Better Local Government filed with the city clerk.
Before the March 1 primary, neither Better Local Government Chairman Phil Sipe nor Oklahoma City Momentum Chairman William Whitehill would say who funded the groups.
While parties with both groups Monday declined to name individual donors, they did generalize on who was behind funding the nonprofits.
Amy Albro, the director of A Better Oklahoma City, said her group receives funds from the Oklahoma City “business and civic community.”
A spokesman with the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber confirmed that an economic development group founded by the chamber, Forward Oklahoma City IV, contributed to A Better Oklahoma City. Forward Oklahoma City IV members included several large Oklahoma City businesses.
“It (A Better Oklahoma City) is not an entity of the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber, however Forward Oklahoma City IV investors have contributed to its efforts,” the chamber said in a prepared statement. “No membership dues were used toward the contribution nor were any contract monies from the city or county that are designated to support specific programs. Forward OKC IV was established to position Oklahoma City as one of the top economic development site locations in the country, and its resources come from a limited number of businesses who choose to invest in additional programs to advance our city.”
Sipe, who is also president of International Association of Firefighters Local 157, wrote in an email A Voice for Responsible Government was formed and funded entirely by firefighters.
A common divide
On March 1, Oklahoma City Momentum supported a slate of pro-MAPS candidates. Better Local Government supported those more critical of MAPS 3, the penny sales tax initiative approved by voters in 2009.
Oklahoma City Momentum spent money running campaigns supporting three candidates that won election on March 1 — Ward 5 Councilman-elect David Greenwell, Ward 6 Councilwoman Meg Salyer and Ward 8 Councilman Pat Ryan. The three candidates supported MAPS 3.
Better Local Government spent money on campaigns for three March 1 losers — Ward 5 incumbent Brian Walters, Ward 6 candidate Adrian Van Manen and Ward 8 candidate Cliff Hearron. Van Manen and Hearron, members of the politically active Windsor Hills Baptist Church, also were endorsed by the Sooner Tea Party.
Walters was the only council member to vote against MAPS 3. Van Manen and Hearron questioned whether spending on those programs should be a priority above other things.
The last campaign
Oklahoma City Momentum also is campaigning for Charlie Swinton, a senior banking officer, who is in an April 5 runoff with physician Ed Shadid for the Ward 2 seat being vacated by Bowman.
While he has been endorsed by police and firefighter unions, Shadid has not accepted donations or support from any political action committee or group. The bulk of his donations are checks he has written his own campaign. At Shadid's request, Better Local Government is not campaigning for the candidate.
Shadid said he is not anti-MAPS as other candidates supported by firefighters have been labeled.
“I support the implementation of all aspects of MAPS 3 as promised to the voters with maximum openness, transparency and public deliberation,” he said.
Shadid has criticized Oklahoma City Momentum's backing of Swinton.
“He (Swinton) will owe his seat to them,” Shadid said. “There is no way that Charlie Swinton wins without the outside interference of the Committee for Oklahoma City Momentum.”
Swinton defended his fundraising, saying it shows he has a broad base of support. Further, Swinton said, he cannot control independent groups or how the law allows them to fundraise.
“Our message has been consistently pro-jobs, pro-MAPS, keeping Oklahoma City moving forward,” Swinton said. “It resonates with people across the community.”
Other interest groups
Sixteen other political action committees have given money to city council candidates. Because money was donated directly to city council candidates, those donations were limited to $5,000 per candidate.
The groups can be labeled labor, business, public safety, legal or social issue groups.
Among them were the Oklahoma City Firefighters Association, which gave $5,000 apiece to Walters, Van Manen and Hearron, and Chesapeake Oklahoma PAC, which gave $5,000 apiece to Swinton, Salyer, Ryan and Greenwell.