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Campaign finance limits come to Allegheny County

The Allegheny County Courthouse in Downtown Pittsburgh.
Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA

This is WESA Politics, a weekly newsletter by Chris Potter providing analysis about Pittsburgh and state politics. Sign up here to get it every Thursday afternoon.

I’m a political reporter, which means that trouble is my business, and also that I don’t like to work very hard. So I confess a certain ambivalence about efforts to limit the size of campaign contributions. After all, it’s easier — and more fun! — to report on a single $100,000 contribution than it is to track down 20 contributions of $5,000 apiece.

Nevertheless, outgoing Allegheny County Councilor Tom Duerr is poised to ruin my life of ease. On Tuesday, his colleagues voted overwhelmingly for his legislation to impose federal campaign-contribution limits on county-level officeseekers, who currently face no limits at all.

The vote was 13 to 2, though Duerr says the win was tougher than it looks. That’s partly because — while the rules won’t go into effect until the 2025 elections — some saw the bill through the lens of a hugely expensive county executive race.

“I was getting shots from John Weinstein’s camp: They thought it was a continuation of what [City Controller Michael Lamb] was doing to cast ethical clouds over him,” Duerr said. “I heard it from Sara Innamorato’s people too — that this was the moderate Democrats trying to hurt her.”

In fact, Duerr’s bill could cramp the style of both the Old Guard — folks like Weinstein who can bank five-digit checks from union locals or well-heeled executives — and the Progressive Juggernaut, which can draw on support from ideological soulmates nationwide.

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Duerr said that based on a cursory review of finance data, “This would have affected Sara and John almost evenly.” And in politics, often the only thing more important than helping yourself is hurting the other guy.

In any case, the new rules appear poised to become law. County Executive Rich Fitzgerald previously opposed contribution limits, arguing that they should be applied statewide so as not to hurt county officials who seek higher office. But on Thursday morning, Duerr announced that Fitzgerald would not veto the reforms. (A county spokesperson told me Fitzgerald would have no comment.)

So much for the adrenaline jolt that comes from spotting a cluster of zeroes on a financial report. Duerr’s bill does have an upside for political scribes: It mandates an additional campaign finance report six weeks before the election. That sheds badly needed light on campaigns that otherwise operate in the dark until days before the primary. Still, election junkies will have to look harder to get our fix, and to find out when the fix is in.

But maybe not too much harder. Because money in politics, like water in a sewer, finds its own level. Plug one pipeline and it often backs up somewhere else.

After the city of Pittsburgh passed its own contribution limits, for example, we saw the emergence of independent expenditure groups, led by SEIU locals, transform the city’s 2021 mayoral race. That election foreshadowed the role SEIU Healthcare and its allies played in nominating Innamorato this spring.

Outside spending had an even bigger impact in the district attorney ace, where Matt Dugan’s campaign relied heavily on nearly three-quarters of a million dollars from a criminal-justice reform committee funded by George Soros.

Those mailings and TV ads were reported as “in-kind” contributions, authorized by Dugan and documented in his financial reports. Had Duerr’s rules been in effect, Soros’ PAC could have spent the same amount in the same way. But it would have done so as an independent expenditure group, unable to communicate with Dugan’s campaign directly.

Would voters have noticed a difference? Would they be better off? As it was, Dugan couldn’t evade responsibility for the ads, the way candidates often do when outside money beats up their rivals for them. And more broadly, the danger is that when you try to break up concentrations of wealth, the money disperses in ways that are harder to track.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which makes it all but impossible to limit outside spending, means “we're fighting symptoms, not the disease,” Duerr conceded. “But that's still government's job. We have to do our best to take money out of politics.”

Allegheny County Council member Tom Duerr (D-District 5).
Jakob Lazzaro
90.5 WESA
Allegheny County Council member Tom Duerr (D-District 5).

Not being able to communicate with campaigns, he added, limits outside groups’ effectiveness: “The one thing a campaign can’t buy is time, and you are wasting it when the right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing.”

Pat Christmas, chief policy officer of Philadelphia-based ethics group Committee of 70, understands the challenges. Philadelphia just had the most expensive mayoral election in its history, despite having had contribution limits on the books for years.

“The federal landscape makes things hard,” Christmas said. “But in Philadelphia we wouldn’t want to go back to the way things were 20 years ago.”

Christmas said reforms have to keep following the money — and trying to get out ahead of it on issues such as enforcement. Under Duerr’s rules, a campaign that violates the limits may be taken to court by a citizen or the county ethics board through the solicitor. Christmas says that’s “a high threshold and a slow means of action,” compared to Philadelphia, where the ethics board has more authority to act on its own (and did so last month).

Duerr already has another reform in the pipeline: a proposal to prevent “redboxing,” in which campaigns broadcast messages they want other groups to amplify, without coordinating directly. As I reported here previously, the Innamorato campaign made use of the tactic — even when there were no contribution limits to make it necessary.

So political reporters will still have material to work with. As for Duerr, he plans to challenge Republican Devlin Robinson in the 37th state Senate District next year. There won’t be contribution limits for that race, but Duerr can now say he’s taken on money in politics where he could. Which is to say he’s getting his name out there the old-fashioned way: He earned it.

Nearly three decades after leaving home for college, Chris Potter now lives four miles from the house he grew up in -- a testament either to the charm of the South Hills or to a simple lack of ambition. In the intervening years, Potter held a variety of jobs, including asbestos abatement engineer and ice-cream truck driver. He has also worked for a number of local media outlets, only some of which then went out of business. After serving as the editor of Pittsburgh City Paper for a decade, he covered politics and government at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He has won some awards during the course of his quarter-century journalistic career, but then even a blind squirrel sometimes digs up an acorn.