Does money talk in Bainbridge elections?

On a state and national level, it is generally conceded that money is indispensable to a successful political campaign – a badly outspent candidate seldom wins.

If that also holds true for Bainbridge Island, then you’d put your bets on Darlene Kordonowy for mayor and Bill Nelson for the central ward city council seat, because both have far outspent and out-fundraised the opposition.

But observers of the Bainbridge Island political scene say the personal touch may still be more important than a media campaign.

“A big part of the campaign on Bainbridge Island is vouching,” said David Harrison, a political science faculty member at the University of Washington and an adviser to Sen. Maria Cantwell, who has run for both school board and the state legislature.

“People who get behind a candidate and spread the word to their friends can be tremendously important.”

According to statements filed with the state Public Disclosure Commission, Kordonowy has raised some $24,500, compared to the $8,400 raised by her opponent, Chris Llewellyn. In 1997, Dwight Sutton raised and spent just over $26,000 to narrowly defeat Jack MacArthur, who spent almost $18,000.

In the race for the central ward council seat being vacated by Merrill Robison, Bill Nelson had raised just over $13,000 as of mid-October, in addition to a $5,000 loan from his business to the campaign. Bill Knobloch raised $5,335 through the end of October, on top of a $4,000 loan he made to his own campaign.

In the race for the other central ward seat, Deborah Vann has raised almost $4,700 and lent herself $2,500, but has spent only $1,750. In the north ward, Deborah Vancil has raised some $3,350.

Vann’s opponent, incumbent Jim Llewellyn, and Vancil’s opponent, architect Tom Hofferber, both elected the option of short-form reporting. Those candidates pledge not to raise more than $3,500, and take no individual contribution exceeding $300; in return, the candidates do not file detailed reports of contributions and expenditures.

In the mayoral race, Kordonowy’s money edge comes from the number of donors, not the size of the donations. Records show she has received 177 contributions of at least $25. Her largest single contribution was for $2,000 from a member of the island’s arts community, and only eight donations exceeded $500.

“That’s what I’m most proud of,” Kordonowy said. “The number of donations shows a really broad base of support and level of participation.”

Llewellyn said she had a target spending limit of $10,000, and believes her total will come in at about that level. But she said the true cost of the campaign involves lost time as well as spent money.

“This has cost me six months salary,” she said. “In a small town, we should have limits, because the cost prevents people with an ordinary income from running.”

Nelson viewed his fundraising as an indication of support.

“This support has been from people in the private sector feeling like they need some business representation on the city council,” he said. Nelson said that much of his support came from people who approached him and volunteered to help, and others responded to an island-wide mailing.

While many of Nelson’s donors are members of Wing Point Country Club, Nelson said that Knobloch’s role in spearheading opposition to a practice facility at the club was not a factor.

“The driving range is a dead issue among most of the people I’ve talked to,” he said, “especially since the August membership meeting when I got up and said I thought we should drop the project.”

Knobloch, who ran significantly ahead of Nelson in the September primary, said that despite the disparity in fund-raising, he was confident his message has gotten across.

“I’m very pleased with the campaign strategy, which tells my story,” he said.

He said he had made a conscious decision not to use yard signs because of what he calls the visual intrusiveness.

Vicki Johnson, who managed Phil Rockefeller’s first campaign for the state legislature and one of Andy Maron’s campaigns for city council, agrees with Harrison that some money is necessary, but that the biggest spender won’t always prevail.

“I think for those people who don’t know anything about the candidate, advertising may push them,” she said. “But I really hope people refer to the voter’s guides and make up their minds that way.”

She said island politics still has a strong element of the personal touch, and said that endorsement ads, listing a candidate’s supporters, are still important.

“A lot of people look at them, and see who people they know are supporting,” she said.

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