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Should money matter in quest for City Council?

Many candidates say they will eschew fund-raising in favor of ‘waste-free’ runs.

Mass mailings, pamphlets, advertisements and yard signs – and the dollars that make them possible – are fading from island City Council races.

Over half of the 11 of the candidates vying for four council seats have pledged to raise no campaign money, preferring to battle for votes with speeches, handshakes and calloused door-knocking knuckles.

“I do not want to be in the pockets of anyone who makes a campaign contribution – that way I can maintain my complete independence,” said Robert Dashiell, who faces Curt Winston and Kim Brackett for an open South Ward seat.

Winston has also taken the no-money pledge, along with all the North Ward candidates and Lauren Ellis in the Central Ward race. They say fundraising can pull candidates away from public issues and make them more concerned with soliciting dollars than votes.

Some, like Ellis and North Ward candidate Matthew van Winkle, who is running against Hilary Franz an Charlie Frame, want to run “waste-free” campaigns for environmental and aesthetic reasons, as well as economic ones.

“We need to be an enviornmentally, as well as financially, green community and our candidates need to act as such,” wrote van Winkle on his campaign website. “This should be a waste free campaign, wasting neither paper to make signs nor paper to pay for them.”

Four other candidates in the Central and South ward contests say they will likely raise some limited funds.

Candidates John Waldo and Barry Peters sparked a fund-raising race when the two were opponents for the council’s at-large position.

Waldo shook things up Friday when he suddenly ducked Peters and jumped into the Central Ward contest hours before the filing deadline. He brought with him a war chest of nearly $4,000, which is $4,000 more than any of his three new opponents, incumbent Councilman Bill Knobloch, Ellis and CarolAnn Barrows.

Peters, now running unopposed, will breeze into the council’s at-large post backed by over $4,000 in unspent campaign funds. Both Waldo and Peters had spent hundreds of dollars on mailed platform statements and requests for additional funds over the last two months.

Councilman Nezam Tooloee, who opted not to run again for his at-large seat and will make way for Peters in 2008, said the recent trend toward cash-poor campaigns will lead to richer elections and better candidates.

“I’m tickled pink,” he said. “It’s about time, too. No fund-raising, no brochures, no mailings, no signs. Just going to meetings, emails, having coffee with people and talking about the issues – that’s the stuff local (elections) should be made of.”

But Tooloee admits that political ideals are often very different than their realities.

Tooloee fundraised almost $18,000 in his bid for a council seat in 2003. He won the race against Arnie Kubiak, who raised over $7,000, by a 2 to 1 margin.

But two years ago, Tooloee took a much different tact during his campaign to unseat Mayor Darlene Kordonowy.

He raised no funds and eschewed many of the traditional campaign trappings.

The strategy was not nearly as successful as the one backed by dollars, Tooloee found.

“The local politicos said ‘what are you doing? Why aren’t you running a campaign?’” he said. “I said that I was running. I was an idealist. I thought that Bainbridge Island residents can pay attention to substance and not give any weight to ads or brochures. Quite a few people said I paid the price and that it cost me the race.

“Maybe they’re right, but I’d hate it if they’re right.”

Raising money to buy ads and send mass mailings isn’t just a winning strategy, it’s also a vital part of connecting with and informing voters, said Councilwoman Debbie Vancil, a veteran of two council races.

“I never spent a lot but I enjoyed the fact that I’d worked in the community for 20 years and have name recognition,” she said. “But for some of the newer folks running, they need to do something that tells people who they are and what they stand for. Sending out printed material, putting ads in the paper – that’s how most (voters) get their info.”

Relying on websites and emails to gain a low or no-cost wider reach, as some candidates have pledged to do, has its pitfalls too.

“Those strategies mean you’re waiting for voters to find you,” she said. “You have to reach out to them. It’s simply being fair to busy voters.”

Vancil commended those wishing to try new, lower-cost tactics to gain votes. While believing some fundraising is necessary, Vancil advocates caps on donations and says there is a need for tighter control over “stealth” contributions.

In past island elections, independent political groups have given boosts to certain candidates through ads and other dollar-backed strategies.

In 2004, Vancil’s opponent Frank Renna benefited from endorsement ads placed in local newspapers that were purchased by Bainbridge Conservation Voters. Such assistance does not have to be reported as part of a candidate’s overall contribution tally.

A similar specter hung over the at-large race between Waldo and Peters.

Although both candidates had raised about $5,000, Waldo predicted Peters would likely get the Conservation Voters’ nod and the print ad campaign that could come with it.

“Because they spent money on ads in the past, I assumed Bainbridge Conservation Voters would give Barry their endorsement,” Waldo said.

Waldo had, as of last week, spent about $1,300 on two mailings and a insert ad in the Bainbridge Island Chamber of Commerce newsletter.

“Maybe it’s because I’m a print guy...or, being that I’m 60-plus years old and am maybe more traditional, but I think you have to get in touch with people and I think it’s nice to have something tangible in your hands,” said Waldo, a former Bainbridge Review reporter on Thursday, before he switched to the Central Ward race. “And maybe it’s because I’m in a tough race and I want to win.”

The bankroll Waldo now brings to the Central Ward makes that contest a bit tougher, said Knobloch.

Last week, the incumbent doubted he’d do much fund-raising when the race was between himself and Ellis, who pledged to do no fundraising. But on Tuesday, Knobloch had changed course.

“I’m sending out a fund-raising letter,” he said. “(Waldo) has a lot of money to buy ads. It takes money to run a campaign.”

While some candidates will seek dollars this election cycle, they’re drawing in less than in past races.

In 2001, Knobloch’s opponent Bill Nelson raked in over $21,000 to fuel a campaign that included television ads. Knobloch, for his part, drew in over $7,000 while candidates that year typically raised about $5,000.

Tooloee and Councilman Jim Llewellyn both had five-figure campaign accounts in 2003.

During the last election, the top fund-raisers were pulling in less than $2,000, according to state Public Disclosure Commission data.

The lower these bottom lines drop, the better for local democracy, said van Winkle.

“Money damages politics and shifts priorities – not necessarily towards those who donate, but towards obtaining more donations,” said van Winkle. “Candidates spend too much time asking others for money and not enough time talking to those who matter, the ordinary citizens.”

Those who don’t dig for dollars will likely avoid both political grime and political glory, Vancil said.

“It’s good people are trying to break new ground here, but the community’s not used to it,” she said. “Maybe it’s the future, but we’re not there yet. If you want to do good things, you have to win first.”

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