Welcome to Election Cycle 2011! We're rolling right into the primaries on Sept. 13, and the 36 City Council candidates -- those door-knocking, passionate community do-gooders -- are out in their districts, stumping for your vote.
This year's City Council races may be the most expensive in Tulsa history. Three long-time councilors are not seeking re-election, so these districts are open to new and interesting candidates.
Meanwhile incumbents in other districts are competing against some star-quality contenders for their seats. Candidates are throwing everything they have into the race, whether it's their passion, unique personality, community leadership or record of business building. Or their backing interests.
Money talks the loudest. Rare is the candidate who gets into the political ring without some less than altruistic ideals. According to campaign finance reports, city council candidates raised more than $440,000 in contributions during the 2009 election season.
And with several tight races in the mix this year, this election could come with an even heftier price tag. It's a lot of money to spend on a demanding part-time gig that pays $18,000 a year--so, questions are begged.
In this year's Oklahoma City council elections, thirteen candidates (and the independent groups who loved them) raised more than $1.2 million for four city council seats, according to The Oklahoman. There, a City Council member earns $12,000 per year.
These independent groups have become a key player in some campaigns. Since they aren't under the purview of the FEC, they don't have to report a list of donors the way a political action committee or 527-organization must.
According to Tulsa's election filing procedures, candidates are required to fill out forms once they receive contributions exceeding $500 in total. From there, a designated person or committee must report all contributions and expenditures over a $200 threshold to the City Clerk.
Three interest-piquing political action committees (PAC) have filed with the City Clerk's office: TulsaBizPac, operated by the Tulsa Metro Chamber and chaired by David Page; and Save Our Tulsa Campaign Committee chaired by John Brock.
[In print, we incorrectly referred to the Blake 4 Tulsa campaign committee as a political action committee. Shelby Navarro is the chairman of the Blake 4 Tulsa committee, but is not the head of a PAC.]
Additionally, a few new PACs have filed campaign expenditures with the City Clerk since we reported on prominent PACs in town. These new PACs include the Firefighters PAC, Build PAC (on behalf of the Home Builders Association) and Back the Badge PAC (on behalf of the police union).
According to the Tulsa Metro Chamber website, contributions to TulsaBizPac are limited to $5,000 per person per year. Donations aren't tax deductible. They've also said they won't contribute more than $5,000 to any one candidate.
These PACs must report their money flow to the Clerk's office on a few separate dates (applicable to this campaign cycle): Aug. 29, Oct. 24 and Dec. 8. Theoretically, the public can then see exactly who donated to whom and in what amount.
But if the Tulsa Council elections end up anything like those in Oklahoma City last year, things may not be so crystal clear.
Oklahoma Gazette, Oklahoma City's alt-weekly, reporter Clifton Adcock tracked down the money that flowed from individual donors to a non-profit called A Better Oklahoma City Inc. and into a powerful PAC, Committee for Oklahoma City Momentum.
As a 527 organization, Committee for Oklahoma City Momentum, was required to report its contributions to the Internal Revenue Service, but by then donors' identities had been scrubbed away through A Better OKC Inc.
Independent groups like Better OKC don't have to report their donor lists because they've applied for achieved 501(c)(4) status, which classifies them as a social welfare organization and exempt from campaign reporting laws.
Through this loophole, OKC Momentum was able to deliver money to candidates while shielding the identities of people who poured more than $1 million into the city's elections.
"By far, the group that spent the most in the elections was an independent expenditure group known as the Committee for OKC Momentum," Adcock wrote in an election post-mortem in April.
"Funded at least in part -- if not fully -- through a Greater Oklahoma City Chamber program, the group employed the services of one of the most influential political strategy companies in the state," Adcock wrote.
We'll get to that influential political strategy company's involvement in the Tulsa city council elections in a moment. First, a word about the current king of political strategy, Karl Rove.
The method of concealing funds by funneling money through a 501(c)(4) non-profit into a 527 organization wasn't discovered in OKC. Many pundits credit Rove, America's most famous political operative, with this page in the Republican playbook.
Last year, the Supreme Court altered the campaign landscape with its Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision. The court's ruling freed up groups that are formed independently of candidates or political parties to raise unlimited funds from corporate and individual donors.
Shortly after the court's ruling, a right-leaning 527 organization, American Crossroads, popped up. Others soon followed suit. The group was co-founded by Rove. According to a Huffington Post story on June 24, Rove then helped form Crossroads GPS, a 501(c)(4) non-profit. The two organizations share offices and are headed by the same person.
Together, the two groups spent around $39 million in the 2010 midterm elections.
Meet an Okie Karl Rove
In Oklahoma, we've got our own Republican strategist who's been behind the scenes in OKC and Tulsa's City Council elections. His name is Karl Ahlgren, co-owner of AH Strategies, an Oklahoma City-based political consulting business. Ahlgren's partner is Fount Holland, and the pair has worked with many state representatives in recent years.
Ahlgren is a 25-year veteran of Oklahoma government and politics. For ten years, he was a field director for U.S. Senator Don Nickles. He then served as chief of staff to then-Congressman (now Senator) Tom Coburn from 1994 to 2000, according to a press release issued by AH Strategies.
Ahlgren was behind Mayor Dewey Bartlett Jr.'s successful 2009 mayoral campaign. Later, he was again tapped by Bartlett for at least one conversation about Tulsa's re-districting effort according to Tulsa World.
Ahlgren also advised the sta te Senate on Oklahoma-wide re-districting. He has denied involvement in the OKC Momentum campaign according to The Oklahoman.
With Ahlgren appearing to already be in Bartlett's corner, it might be the case he's aligned himself with candidates up against incumbent councilors who are at odds with the mayor.
However, Terry Simonson, Bartlett's chief of staff, said the mayor is not involved in the Council races.
"Both Mayor Bartlett and Mr. Ahlgren agree that it would not be appropriate for the mayor to be involved in the City Council campaigns. Given what the public already knows and has witnessed regarding the City Council, there is very little the mayor could add as to why changes are necessary," Simonson said.
In this year's city council election, Ahlgren has been hired by three Republican candidates: Liz Hunt (District 4), Karen Gilbert (District 5) and Phil Lakin (District 8).
He Who Must Not Be Named
Some Council hopefuls have remained mum on their alignment with Ahlgren, most likely because of his reputation as an expensive, ruthless and mudslinging campaigner.
In a recent blog post, Blake Ewing, Republican District 4 candidate, addressed speculations about Ahlgren's involvement in the campaigns. In the post dated Aug. 21, Ewing said he didn't hire Ahlgren because "I didn't feel his track record as a ruthless operative was consistent with my approach and because I felt I already had a strong team in place."
Ewing also said Ahlgren was an "early cheerleader" of his, though now the consultant is working for his opponent, Hunt.
"It's amazing to me the degree to which people are going to avoid association with Karl Ahlgren right now," Ewing wrote in his campaign blog.
For her part, Hunt said she's using AH Strategies as her "general campaign consultant," and that the company has "worked to guide me through the election process."
She also said her campaign has been positive and "based on thoughtfulness and hard work," rather than on the mud-slinging for which Ahlgren is known.
District 2 candidate Nancy Rothman contacted Ahlgren for services, and he said he put her in touch with a number of vendors but did not ultimately sign with Ahlgren.
District 7 candidate Thomas Mansur said Ahlgren has assisted him with his campaign, too. Ahlgren has helped Mansur with a mailing list, flyer design and a recorded message.
However, Mansur said, he's handling his own campaign with the help of volunteers, and is focused on calling voters and walking neighborhoods.
District 8 candidate Phil Lakin said he told Ahlgren he wanted a "completely positive campaign ... and if he'd said anything other than 'Fine,' I wouldn't have hired him."
But he didn't get any pushback from Ahlgren, Lakin said. "It's just not the kind of person I am and not the kind of city councilor that we need right now," Lakin said.
District 5 Councilor Chris Trail used Ahlgren in his successful run for the seat last election cycle. Trail had intended to hire Ahlgren for this year's campaign, but the consultant instead signed on with Gilbert.
"I don't know what happened," Trail said. The last time he saw Ahlgren at a re-districting meeting, they hugged, he said. After that, "I sent him an email about lunch, and got no reply. I sent it again a week later, still no reply."
While it appears Trail got the short shrift, he said, "I don't have anything bad to say about the man. I think it's purely business for him."
"He's very expensive," Trail said. "And if the candidates can't raise the money to pay him, the candidate's going to have to pay him" out of his or her own pocket.
Come into my Chamber
One political action committee, TulsaBizPac, is putting money into candidates' pockets rather than draining them. The Tulsa Metro Chamber formed the TulsaBizPac, came up with an 11-point platform of key issues and interviewed the candidates for like-minded potential councilors.
"Last year, Chamber leaders were firm in their decision to increase political involvement through the establishment of the PAC," Page, TulsaBizPac chairman, said. "The November City Council election is the first opportunity to employ the PAC, but the program will continue through future city and county elections, including the mayoral race."
All of the candidates were invited to interview, and 25 of them took the Chamber up on their offer.
The Chamber contracted Steve Turnbo of Schnake Turnbo Frank PR to help people seeking more information on how to run for office, according to an April 20 press release.
The Chamber also hired Ahlgren to educate Chamber leadership on City Council re-districting. Turnbo and Ahlgren are being paid through membership revenue and not public investment funds, the release said.
Also on his blog, Ewing detailed his interview with the Chamber on July 20. In an attempt to dispel mystery surrounding the Chamber's activities, Ewing posted part of an email from the group on the structure of his 45-minute interview.
The Chamber's 11-point platform includes these issues: Support for regionalism; strict adherence to the city charter; Tulsa Public Schools reform and general education cheerleading; the creation, passage and implementation of what they're calling the "Next Vision Package"; the broad goals of infill and urban development; cooperation for new transportation options; support for river development; immediate planning for a renewal of the "Fix Our Streets" package, which they're calling, "Fix Our Streets II"; seeking out downtown revitalization; continued coordination with the Convention and Visitors Bureau; and those airy ideals, diversity and inclusion.
City Council candidates were sent an email outlining the Chamber's platform before the interview process began.
A few weeks ago, the Chamber announced the 12 candidates they decided to endorse and to whom they will donate money.
The Chamber endorsed four candidates in both the primaries and general elections (plus financial help): District 1 Councilor Jack Henderson ($2,500); District 3 candidate David Patrick ($2,500); District 8 candidate Phil Lakin ($2,500); and District 9 Councilor G.T. Bynum ($2,500).
They have endorsed three candidates for the primaries only (plus financial support): District 2 candidate Jeannie Cue ($2,500); District 4 candidate Ken Brune ($1,000); and District 7 candidate Tom Mansur ($2,500).
The Chamber is offering financial support and no endorsement to five candidates: District 4 candidate Ewing ($1,000); District 4 candidate Hunt ($1,000); District 5 Councilor Trail ($2,500); District 5 candidate Gilbert ($2,500); and District 6 candidate Byron "Skip" Steele ($2,500).
"TulsaBizPac selected and supported candidates based on his or her stance on issues, but also those with a proven track record of diplomacy and leadership," said Page, PAC chair and also JPMorgan Chase market president.
It's a lot of money to spend on a demanding part-time gig that pays $18,000 a year.
In his Aug. 21 post on the Chamber, Ewing said he felt he was the best candidate for them to support, though they only offered him a financial contribution.
He said he would accept the $1,000 donation from the Chamber and then donate it to a local charity. "I'd rather not reject it and send it into my opponent's pocket," Ewing wrote. "So I'm going to accept it and let you decide what local non-profit will benefit from it."
Tulsa Firefighter Union Local 176, a very politically active group in city politics, has announced its endorsements as well. The union largely supports incumbents, like Trail, Bynum, District 1 Councilor Jack Henderson, District 3 Councilor Roscoe Turner, District 4 Councilor Maria Barnes, District 6 Councilor Jim Mautino.
The union also endorsed two newcomers: District 2's Cue and District 8 candidate George Gibbs.
The union endorsed candidates despite Mayor Bartlett's executive order forbidding city employees from campaigning even during off-work hours.
The city charter states, "No chief, officer, or sworn member of the fire department shall take an active part in any campaign for the election of officers of the city, except to vote and privately state a personal opinion."
The union sued to maintain its campaigning rights, but a court recently ruled in favor of the mayor and an appeal of that judgment was denied last week.
Though the issue remains cloudy, and further appeals may be in progress, the firefighters' union has said it will abide by the ruling. In the meantime, union leaders maintain the group expects to mount a campaign composed of retired firemen and fellow travelers stumping for city councilors of its choice.
The TulsaBizPac has filed a registration form, called an R1, with the City Clerk's office, though the firefighter union did not file a similar form. The form must be submitted once an organization reaches $500 in fundraising.
Politics is a lo'cal
With all the endorsements, PACs and political consultants aside, local races can be won and lost on personal contact. And nothing achieves this better than walking a district's neighborhoods, talking to neighbors and knocking on doors.
Hunt said she just finished her first full go-around of District 4 a few weeks ago. She's worn out a pair of shoes from walking, and even suffered from heat exhaustion after long afternoons in record-breaking July temperatures.
Though she's signed on with Ahlgren, Hunt said her husband, Tom, is her biggest helper and advocate in the race.
"Tom has personally called every household before I come to their doorstep," Hunt said. "And he's assumed many parental and household duties over the past three months. He's also allowed me to turn our home into campaign headquarters."
District 6 candidate Sam Roop said his three grown children are helping him with his campaign. One of his daughters is his campaign coordinator.
District 2 candidate Cue said her children are very supportive of her run for City Council, too. Her son designed and set up her campaign website, she said.
District 5 candidate Gilbert said her teenaged kids are pitching in by driving her through neighborhoods between stops on doorsteps.
When blogger and local politics enthusiast Michael Bates ran for office, he said people lit up when they got a chance to talk to him personally.
Nowadays, personal contact is stretching into the digital age. Most of the candidates have campaign websites and Facebook fan pages. A few even have Twitter accounts.
Social media played a role in the election of Barack Obama, but it's not yet proven ground for local races. Although, social media appeared to play a huge role in the election of Oklahoma City Council member Ed Shadid -- who overcame his opponent's big establishment money to win by a wide margin earlier this year.
Many progressives see it and other alternative media as the template to win elections in Red State Oklahoma. Shadid's Facebook army -- widely credited with helping energize his base -- is known as "Shadid's Secret Weapon -- People."
"I have to do it [social media] because everyone else is," said Roop. "However, if you look closely at the people who cast a vote, they're much older. That doesn't necessarily mean they haven't picked up on social media, though."
While political strategies behind these races may be distilled from a national playbook or typed up on a Facebook page, at some point you have to have an objective scorecard and know exactly who is running and who is driving their campaign. And, the issues, as always, need to remain genuine and locally driven.
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