With weeks to go in the Houston mayor’s race, state Sen. John Whitmire has gone on a spending spree to maintain his lead in the polls – and his leading opponents are crying foul about the sources of his funding advantage.
Whitmire spent nearly $4 million on the race between July 1 and Sept. 28, far outstripping his leading opponent, U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee. During the same period, he raised another $1.1 million to end with $6.9 million on hand as he fended off attacks from rival campaigns.
Whitmire’s summertime expenses included $2.7 million for Thematic, a Chicago-based Democratic consulting company that creates television advertisements and buys time slots to run them.
Across the aisle, Whitmire’s campaign also spent more than $300,000 on two Republican-aligned consulting firms, Jennifer Naedler Consulting and Mammoth Marketing Group.
In sharp contrast to Whitmire, Lee reported spending $757,000 during the same time period. She raised $631,000 to end the period with a $902,000 war chest. Her totals and Whitmire’s were revealed in campaign finance reports that had a Tuesday deadline.
That leaves Lee with far less cash on hand to run ads or pay for block-walkers before the Nov. 7 election. Lee will be forced to decide how much money to spend now and how much to save for a likely Dec. 9 runoff.
At a serious cash disadvantage, Lee critiqued one of the sources of Whitmire’s money at a Tuesday night debate hosted by KPRC. Lee zeroed in on Whitmire’s stock sales during the most recent reporting period, which totalled $2.7 million according to a report released by his campaign.
“If we’re going to have a race that is on issues and is fair, what is the city doing to allow these funds to be used, that have not been legitimate, to be used in a mayoral campaign?” Lee said.
Political campaigns are allowed to buy and sell investments in Texas. However, Lee appeared to be tying those stock sales to Whitmire’s transfer of funds from his state Senate campaign account to his mayoral election account. Whitmire long has bought and sold investments within his state campaign account, where donations are not capped.
Lee’s campaign did not make her available for further clarification on Wednesday.
Lee and former Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County chair Gilbert Garcia wrote a letter to the city attorney last week alleging that Whitmire’s campaign account was boosted by donations for his state senate campaign that exceeded contribution limits in city races.
Whitmire and Lee’s positions in a University of Houston survey released Tuesday were essentially unchanged from a previous survey conducted in July. In a statement, the Lee campaign’s general manager portrayed her lack of movement as a victory given Whitmire’s heavy spending.
“It’s important to note that despite our opponent, candidate John Whitmire, pouring almost $4 million into advertising, the money he improperly transferred into the race has failed to make a dent. We’re proud to have maintained our position,” Glenn Rushing said.
Whitmire rejected the attacks on his campaign’s finances in remarks after the debate.
“They definitely are misrepresenting a lot of the contributions to the campaign account. Everything we’ve done is run by the city attorney. We’re doing the exact same thing Sylvester Turner did,” he said. “What you’re witnessing is candidates that have been advised by their consultants to attack Whitmire.”
The city did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Garcia spent aggressively during the most recent reporting period, a campaign finance report he filed last week shows. Garcia spent $1.6 million and raised $277,000 to end the period with $1.5 million.
The massive outlays appear to have helped Garcia raise his profile. He is the best-known candidate for mayor after Whitmire and Lee, according to a University of Houston survey released Tuesday. However, he still polls at only 4 percent.
Garcia’s expenses included $1.3 million on a firm called City Stone LLC for what is described in the report as “campaign consulting.”
The report gave Washington, D.C. addresses on two sides of the same street for the firm, one of which does not appear in district property records and the other of which is tied to a packing and shipping company.
Garcia said City Stone is a political consulting firm that uses a P.O. box because it works virtually. He said he did not know where the firm, which does not appear to have a presence on the internet, is incorporated.
“C’mon pal, really,” Garcia said in a text message. “I don’t know where anything is incorporated. They are political consultants. Nothing fancy here.”
The firm’s tasks include buying TV advertisement slots, mail and analytics, Garcia said.
Former City Councilmember Jack Christie is at a serious disadvantage as he tries to woo conservatives away from Whitmire, his filing shows. Christie has funded his campaign almost entirely through loans from himself and reported having $110,000 on hand at the end of September after spending $122,000.
Another former council member hoping to outflank Whitmire from the right, M.J. Khan, had $162,000 on hand after spending $92,000.
Sitting Councilmember Robert Gallegos had $145,000 on hand after spending $17,000 in the most recent reporting period. Lawyer Lee Kaplan had $915,000 left after spending $553,000.
Outside the marquee race, the most recent round of reports show that one former mayoral candidate turned City Council contender, trial attorney Tony Buzbee, is running a largely self-financed campaign. Buzbee loaned himself $250,000 in August as he geared up to take on incumbent District G Councilmember Mary Nan Huffman.
Adding to that loan with a smattering of contributions, Buzbee spent $260,000 on expenses including polling, consulting and canvassing.
In contrast, Huffman raised $31,000 and spent nearly $38,000 to end the period with $99,000 in her account.