Money isn’t everything in political campaigns. Yet, it is a lot of things, explains Rhode Island Public Radio political analyst Scott MacKay who ponders the role of campaign cash in the 2014 RI Democratic gubernatorial primary.
Jesse Unruh, speaker of the California Assembly, coined the term back in 1966. ``Money,’’ said Unruh. ``is the mother’s milk of politics.’’
It may be cliché, but it is as true in the 21st Century as it was back in Unruh’s day. Political campaigns cost more now than ever, as politicians spend gobs of campaign cash on television commercials, pollsters, targeting voters and coaxing them to the polls.
Providence Mayor Angel Taveras is seen by voters as having done a good job running the state’s largest city. The latest WPRI –Providence Journal public opinion survey shows Taveras with the highest approval rating of any elected official in our tiny state. That survey of 516 voters released a month ago pegged the mayor’s approval rating at 57 percent, which compares favorably with the 51 percent who approve of the job being done by view his likely Democratic gubernatorial opponent, State General Treasurer Gina Raimondo.
In addition, Taveras does significantly better among the Democrats who are the foundation of the primary vote. The mayor holds a 67 percent approval rating among Democrats, while the treasurer’s is at 51 percent. This poll, by veteran pollster Joe Fleming, carried an error margin of about 4 percentage points.
Moreover, Taveras scored high on the biggest issue facing Rhode Island: How to jump-start our struggling economy. Of all the candidates tested, the poll found Taveras leading on the question of who would do the best job on improving the economy, regardless of the respondent’s own view. Taveras was on top with 26 percent, followed by unsure at 23 percent, Republican Allan Fung, the Cranston mayor, at 20 percent, Raimondo at 16 percent, Republican Ken Block at 7 percent and Democrat Clay Pell, at 7 percent.
While the mayor’s poll numbers look great, his campaign bank account does not. At the end of September, the last public reporting period, Taveras had about $760,000 in cash on hand in his war chest. Raimondo’s account was at $2.3 million.
Given the way Rhode Island’s campaign finance laws work, the gap between Taveras and Raimondo is even bigger. The state’s limits campaign contributions from individuals to $1,000 per person per year, which means that Raimondo can go back to her same donor list for another $1,000 beginning in two weeks.
Unlike Raimondo, who worked in the venture capital industry and has cultivated deep-pocketed donors around the country, Taveras has no such connections. A quietly intellectual man, the mayor doesn’t drink alcohol and isn’t a typical back-slapping Rhode Island pol who revels in the relentless schmoozing required to raise money.
Taveras story is a great campaign asset. The son of Latino immigrants who rose through the city’s public schools to get to Harvard is a wonderful biography that fits perfectly with the ethnic and immigrant ballet that has forged Rhode Island’s culture and politics since the state’s founding as a haven for people from around the world seeking a better life.
But without the money to tell that story and to spotlight his record of bailing out the capital city’s red-ink filled budget via television, social media and at the doorsteps, Taveras faces a tough campaign.
Peter Baptista, a fund-raising consultant who was working with the mayor, has left the campaign in the aftermath of the mayor’s purge of lawyer Matthew Jeryzk and strategist Arianne Lynch, two young politicos who are well-regarded in the state’s labor and progressive circles. The Taveras inner circle is now dominated by older men, including former House Majority Leader George Caruolo, former Cranston state representative and city council member Joseph DeLorenzo, City Hall chief of staff Michael D’Amico and Mark Ryan a lawyer and former top executive at the Providence Journal.
None of those men are much liked by the liberal and labor union member base of the state’s Democratic Party. Caruolo, for example, is smart; he too is a Harvard grad. But when he left the House in the 1990's after a falling out with his one-time ally, House Speaker John Harwood, Statehouse lobbyists joked that you could count the number of friends Caruolo , known for his my-way-or-the-highway-style, had at the capitol on the fingers of one hand. State Sen. Maryellen Goodwin has been brought in to replace Lynch. She has strong Statehouse connections but is not known for strategic campaign skills.
``Mayor Taveras is proud to run a grassroots campaign financed by people who want a governor willing to stand up for working families,’’ said Danny Kedem, the mayor’s campaign manager. ``He doesn’t have deep Wall Street ties nor is he independently wealthy. But thousands of Rhode Islanders have contributed to him—to many of whom $10 is a lot of money.’’
That’s campaign spin and it well may resonate with voters who are sick of big money campaigns and pols who forget where they are from the day they win election. But sentiment isn’t going to get Taveras anywhere with Rhode Island’s television stations when he needs to buy commercials next September.
There is only so much love money in politics.
Taveras doesn’t need to be the top spender to win; he won an easy Democratic primary victory for mayor in 2010 without gobs of money. And Rhode Island political history is littered with candidates who had the most money and still lost. But it is difficult to see how Taveras defeats a tough candidate such as Raimondo if he gets outspent three to one.
Back in 2000, Taveras ran a respectable but woefully underfunded campaign for U.S. House. He lost to Jim Langevin, who holds the seat still. After the election, Taveras vowed that he wouldn’t run for office again until he had enough money to have a path to victory.
Has the mayor forgotten his own words?
Scott MacKay’s commentary can be heard every Monday on Morning Edition at 6:35 and 8:35 and at 5:50 on All Things Considered. You can also follow his political analysis and reporting at the `On Politics’ Blog at RIPR.org