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Unprecedented amount of outside cash flowing into Rochester council races

Unprecedented amount of outside cash flowing into Rochester council races

By now, you have probably heard about the influx of outside money flowing into the Rochester City Council elections. Two groups, Minnesota's Future and the National Association of Realtors, have spent a combined $75,000 attempting to influence two races: Ward 2 and Council President.

The attention on the two races — compared to Wards 4 and 6 — is not surprising. Council president is the only at-large position on the council and is responsible for setting the agenda; Ward 2 is now held by incumbent council member Michael Wojcik, a high-profile figure in Rochester politics who draws strong reactions from both directions. Not to mention, there are stark differences between the candidates in both races (podcast interviews here).

Even so, the amount of outside cash flowing into Rochester council elections is unprecedented. While "big money" has become synonymous with state and federal elections, especially since the Supreme Court's 'Citizens United' decision, local races had yet to attract this type of attention — until now.

Why the attention?

Thanks in large part to Destination Medical Center, there is a profusion of money changing hands in our area. And that attracts an array of interests. The groups supporting council president Randy Staver and Ward 2 challenger Scott Hoss represent realtors, developers and conservative donors.

In other words, these groups view Staver and Hoss as the candidates most likely to support policies that further their business interests.

It's important to note that neither candidate is coordinating with the political groups. Third-party groups, or political action committees, are allowed to support candidates financially as long as they operate independently of the campaigns. Hoss, to his credit, even apologized to Wojcik after Minnesota's Future began sending out "ugly" and "cruel" mailers targeting Wojcik.

"Candidates have no control over what PACs do with their money, and cannot stop them from printing materials such as this," Hoss wrote in a note to supporters. He added, "I suggest you talk to the candidate, their friends, their supports and detractors, their neighbors, colleagues, and community leaders to get the true picture. The rest is just noise."

The scrutiny on these local races is not limited to money. There have been more forums, debates and news stories than in any past election season. All of this attention goes to show that people inside and outside our community care a great deal about what happens next.

Where's the money going?

As mentioned, the outside money — $75,000 in total — is being spent independently to support the Staver and Hoss campaigns. With the exception of the distasteful mailers targeting Wojck, there is nothing too intriguing about how the money is being spent: research, advertising and phone calls.

What is alarming is how much is being spent relative to individual campaigns. According to campaign finance reports, Staver has been supported with $38,343 in PAC spending, compared to $30,280 in campaign fundraising. Hoss has benefited from $36,353 in third-party funding  — including $15,315 in anti-Wojcik spending — compared to $31,656 from his campaign. 

In comparison, Staver's opponent, businessman Sean Allen, has raised $17,742 for his campaign; Wojcik has raised $16,091. With a week until Election Day, neither of the two candidates has received any PAC support.

Hoss vs. Wojcik Spending

Source: Public Financial Reports

Staver vs. Allen Spending

Source: Public Financial Reports

Total Support for Candidates

Includes both campaign and PAC funding

Who's behind it all?

Thanks to campaign financial statements, we can get a clear picture of who is supporting each candidate's campaign and where their expenditures are going. All local campaigns are required to disclose contributions of more than $100.

If you are so keen to see who's backing who locally, here are the reports for the four candidates mentioned in this story: StaverAllenHoss | Wojcik.

Tracking where the PAC funds are coming from is much more difficult. The groups are required to disclose their largest donors, but the seemingly endless money trail can make it challenging to nail down who is specifically supporting which candidates and political causes.

National Association of Realtors

The association describes itself as "America's largest trade association, representing over 1.1 million members .... involved in all aspects of the residential and commercial real estate industries." says of the association: "While the bulk of its interests revolve around property management and control, the group also lobbies federal lawmakers and the administration on virtually every issue facing the business sector, including health care, bankruptcy legislation and tax rates."

In addition to supporting candidates for federal office, the association has a track record of investing in local elections, as well (examples here and here). The group has historically given to both sides of the political aisle.

Minnesota's Future

According to its most recent financial disclosure form, the PAC receives its financial support largely from Minnesota Action Network, a conservative-leaning group "with a focus on a limited but effective government."

Here's what a representative for Minnesota's Future told the P-B last month:

"Rochester is the fastest growing city in Minnesota, with tremendous assets. The city council creates an environment that is either hostile or friendly to job creation in the city and the region. We back candidates that support policies friendly to job creators and the people that fill those jobs."

MN Action Network contributed $45,000 to Minnesota's Future in this election cycle, records show. That's approximately the same amount of money Minnesota's Future has put into Rochester council races.

Earlier this year, we reported on a small group of Rochester business leaders who were thinking about forming a 501(c)(4) — also known as "social welfare" organization — that would allow donors "to privately make a donation to support the election of candidates to the city council." The story cited an internal memo obtained exclusively by Med City Beat.

Those mentioned in the report later denied involvement. However, one member told us he was "aware of this 501(c)(4) organization" and admitted to holding a "social gathering to encourage upcoming voting in a general sense."

It's unclear whether the group ever followed through with their plans to form a new political organization, or if they decided to find other channels for supporting candidates of their choice.

But I can confirm this: MN Action Network was referenced in the memo.

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