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Council race 2005: Fewer donors, bigger gifts

By the end the residents had left with full stomachs and Nocerino with about $14,000.On May 5, the district's incumbent, Councilwoman Melinda Katz (D-Forest Hills), held her most recent of several fund-raisers at a law firm in Manhattan. Some 30 lawyers and clients sipped cocktails and shook hands with the four-year Council veteran and chairwoman of the powerful Land Use Committee. By the night's end, they had padded Katz's campaign coffers with thousands of dollars.The two events -- one a grassroots effort to collect mostly $25 to $150 from local residents in jeans and ball caps, the other with attendees in business attire from throughout the tri-state area giving $100 to $500 checks -- are, for the most part, examples of the typical differences between challenger and incumbent fund-raising styles. But, according to an analysis of this year's election cycle by the Campaign Finance Board, they are also examples of how far those styles have drifted apart as a result of a growing shift toward fewer donors and larger donations in campaign money-raising. The analysis compared the financial status of all citywide campaigns as of the latest May 16 filing to those filed by the same time in the 2001 races. The board found that while the total amount so far raised this year -- $30.1 million (excluding Mayor Michael Bloomberg's war chest) -- is comparable to the $31.8 million raised by this point in 2001, 33 percent less of it is coming from small contributions classified as at or below $250. Along the same line, the number of total contributors has dropped by one third to 55,000 from 85,000 , the analysis showed.The trend toward fewer donors giving more has sparked concerns among campaign finance officials about how big contributions might diminish the influence of average small-donating voters in election outcomes."It will be important to determine this campaign season whether these apparent trends continue, especially when it comes time to make recommendations for revisions in the Campaign Finance Act, which is intended to encourage small contributions," the board's executive director, Nicole Gordon, said in response to the board's fiscal analysis.And Queens appears to be no exception.Of the $2.7 million raised in the borough's 15 races, which includes those for City Council and borough president, the average amount given by a donor to an incumbent's campaign has been $429, with all but three office holders receiving an average of more than $250 per donor, according the May 16 filings with the Campaign Finance Board. Small donors usually comprise up to 75 percent of all contributors, the board's analysis showed. Council members James Sanders Jr. (D-Laurelton) and Allan Jennings (D-Jamaica), both of whom have said they are running for re-election, were not included in this breakdown since neither has filed with the board. Conversely, the borough's 14 listed challengers have received an average of $156 per donor, with only one challenger averaging more than $250 in contributions.These numbers, however, represent the total amount given by each contributor, who, as is often the case, could have written multiple smaller checks rather than one large one. Still, officials say these figures support the citywide big-money trend seen in the Campaign Finance Board's analysis -- a trend that spokeswoman Tanya Domi called "troubling.""Our intention is to bring small donors into the political process," she said. "The idea is to empower the little guy. Campaign contributions are moving away from that."Katz, however, attributed the lack of big donors in 2001 to the term limits taking effect that year, which forced out around 40 Council members from their seats, including the entire Queens delegation. As a result, these widespread vacancies in the Council, she said, were filled by largely unknown candidates who only earned solid relationships with heavy-hitting contributors when they became incumbents in this year's election cycle."As you grow, your contributors grow," Katz explained.Nevertheless, the shift in donor-candidate dealings exists, campaign finance officials say, and perhaps one of its most apparent indicators is reflected in the race for Katz's Council seat. By far the borough's lead fund-raiser in the Council contests, Katz, 39, who is vying to become speaker this fall, reported donations of $514,836 in the May filing. Since June 2003, she has received 827 donations, only about a quarter of which were small contributions of $250 or less.Although her time as councilwoman has been only four years, Katz's fund-raising and donor networking stretch back to at least 1994 when she was elected to the state Assembly and has continued through her public life, from a close but unsuccessful race against Anthony Weiner (D-Kew Gardens) for the U.S. House in 1998 to her three years working with past Borough President Claire Shulman to her current position as a Democratic district leader."I've been raising money since I was 27," Katz said.By contrast, her opponent, Nocerino, has raised $14,475 since Feb. 24, 2005, the first date he filed in his first quest for public office. About 96 percent of his 120 listed donations came in at or below $250. Although a novice in the political arena, the 49-year-old has been known for many years in the Forest Hills community. A headhunter by profession, Nocerino is also community liaison to the local PS 144, founder of the Kidz Care Junior Civic Association and vice chairman of the Forest Hills Youth Activity Association, which runs after-school youth softball and coed soccer leagues.Another difference between the two candidates' fund-raising is where the money originated. While a good chunk of donors to the Katz campaign appear to be developers, law firms and other corporate entities from outside the borough, virtually all of Nocerino's donations have come from Forest Hills residents."Most of (Katz's) money is coming from people who are not going to vote for her," Nocerino said in a telephone interview last week, referring to donations to the councilwoman from outside her district."The average Joe constituent supports me for election," he continued. "For the incumbents, it's special interest groups. And therefore, they get more."Katz acknowledged she has yet to hold a local fund-raiser and planned to do so before the Sept. 13 primary. Still, a respected service record always trumps a loaded war chest when it comes to winning votes, she said. "No matter how much money I raise, if I can actually provide services to my constituents, it will be that which determines if I get elected."

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