Spending on mayoral race edges close to $100,000


Ed Kemmick/Last Best News

At a mayoral forum during the primary, in Pioneer Park, candidates were asked at one point to raise a green card (yes) or red card (no) to a series of quick questions. Here, Jeff Essmann (left) and Bill Cole agreed on something. We just don’t know what.

When he announced that he was running for Billings mayor, Jeff Essmann said on Wednesday, “I had people telling me early on that I’d need to raise a hundred thousand bucks.”

He said he told those people that that was not realistic, that it would be impossible to raise that much money for a municipal election in Montana.

That may be, but Essmann and his opponent in the mayor’s race, Bill Cole, have together come very close to raising a hundred thousand bucks.

According to campaign finance records filed with the Montana Commissioner of Political Practices, Cole had raised $49,291 as of Monday, the date of his most recent filing, and while Essmann had raised a total of $45,559 as of the same date.

As precise as both of those numbers look, we wish we could vouch for their absolute accuracy. But there is no one place where you can find such numbers. You have to wade through the numerous, sometimes overlapping reports filed by the candidates, keeping a running tabulation as you go.

You also have to keep track of donations from others and direct contributions candidates make to their own campaigns, as well as cash loans and in-kind contributions the candidates make to their campaigns. Essmann made loans to his campaign of just under $11,000, while Cole loaned his campaign $16,065. Cole also kicked off his fundraising by giving $5,000 of his own money to his campaign, for total personal expenditures of just over $21,000.

Highlighting the difficulty of tabulating the costs of electioneering, Cole, after conferring with his campaign treasurer, Terri Steinmetz, said all he knew for sure was that his total was “close to $50,000.” Essmann said his treasurer, who is also his wife, Sherry Essmann, came up with a total near $34,000, while his own calculations put the number closer to $32,000 — neither estimate counting his own loans to the campaign.

So, if perfectly accurate numbers are hard to come by, it does seem safe to say that the two candidates have raised a total of about $95,000 between them — all for the honor of being one of 11 votes on the City Council, and a monthly paycheck of $800.

But maybe’s it’s worth it.

“I’m going to miss it severely,” said Mayor Tom Hanel, who is close to the end of his two-term, eight-year run as mayor. “I really enjoyed it.”

Hanel said he raised about $30,000 in 2009, during his first run for mayor, when he was one of five candidates in the primary. State records show that he raised only about $19,000, but whatever the figure was, he received more votes than the other four candidates in the primary combined, then won the general election with almost 68 percent of the vote.

When he ran for re-election in 2013, there was no primary and his one opponent was relatively unknown. Hanel spent about $1,300 of his own money on newspaper advertising and said he put up exactly one sign, in his yard. He said he returned any money that others gave him. He went on to win the general election with just over 78 percent of the vote.

Told how much Cole and Essmann had raised this year, Hanel said, “That’s a considerable amount of money.”

Still, he said, it’s not that surprising, since both men are high-profile members of the community, both are lawyers and both have lots of friends and connections.

Essmann was a longtime state legislator, small-business owner and former chairman of the state Republican Party. Cole, who has a private law practice, has been president or chairman of the city-county Planning Board, the board of the Alberta Bair Theater and the Billings Chamber of Commerce board.

Hanel said the race is also “very competitive” this year, partly because the city has been well run for many years and is on an upward trajectory. Referring to the mayoral race, which attracted seven candidates in the primary, as well as the crowded City Council races, Hanel said he was pleased to see “so many citizens … with an interest in serving in city government.”

“It says a lot for the community,” Hanel said. “It makes me think Billings is in a good position.”

Election Day is Tuesday, Nov. 7, though in this mail-ballot-only election, it seems better to call it ballot-counting day, since the vast majority of ballots will have been cast before Tuesday.

The cost of running a campaign, meanwhile, makes Cole wonder if such escalating expenses are sustainable. He said serving on the City Council already involved low pay — council members receive $600 a month — and often long hours. If it is going to cost a lot of money to run, he said, a lot of good people might choose not to get involved.

Some of Cole’s major expenditures have been $9,285 for printing and mailing postcards to voters, $4,285 for three billboards and $3,898 for website design, door hangers and Facebook “boosts,” all provided by Beartooth Design Co. He also paid $740 for radio ads and $1,805 for a primary election night party at Hilands Golf Club.

One of Cole’s loans to his campaigns was to cover that $9,285 outlay for postcards. Both candidates said they did not expect to collect on their “loans” to the campaigns.

For Essmann, some of his biggest expenditures — which he paid for with a credit card as part of his own loans to the campaign — were for three weeks of television advertising, for which he made two payments of $3,085 and one of $2,975.

Campaigns for the City Council this year haven’t been nearly as expensive, but they have entailed considerable spending. Here’s a look by ward:

Ward 1: Charlie Smillie, who is challenging incumbent Councilman Mike Yakawich, appears to have raised more money than any other council candidate. Records show he raised $12,036 as of Oct. 25, but on that date he still had $5,646 in the bank, even though a significant number of voters had already mailed in their ballots. Yakawich, meanwhile, reported raising $7,793 through Oct. 21.

Ward 2: In this ward, by contrast, one candidate, Frank Ewalt, hasn’t filed campaign reports because he didn’t intend to raise money, while his opponent, Roger Gravgaard, appears to have raised about $1,700. They are vying to succeed Angela Cimmino, who was term-limited out and also ran for mayor in the primary.

Ward 3: In this race to succeed a term-limited Rich McFadden, Nadja Brown reported raising $9,087 through Oct. 21, while her opponent, Denise Joy, raised $5,426 through Oct. 24.

Ward 4: Incumbent Al Swanson decided not to seek re-election in this ward. Competing to replace him are Penny Ronning, who reported raising $4,085 as of Oct. 26, and George Blackard, who reported raising $1,593 as of Oct. 3.

Ward 5: Incumbent Shaun Brown reported raising $2,100 through Oct. 21. His challenger, Dennis Ulvestad, filed only one finance report, which was received Sept. 5. It had zero receipts for the reporting period but $4,500 “cash in the bank,” listed as being the “balance from previous report,” with no other details.

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