Tuesday, March 4, 2003

Luken's war chest developing

Fund raising becoming never-ending activity

By Gregory Korte
The Cincinnati Enquirer

About 100 "Friends of Mayor Luken" gave as much as $1,000 each at an "intimate" fund-raiser at a downtown restaurant Monday, where Cincinnati Mayor Charlie Luken's campaign committee expected to raise $50,000.

And this is almost three years before Luken will run for re-election - if he runs.

  The Friends of Mayor Luken Committee has spent $20,382 since Charlie Luken was elected to a four-year term in 2001. Among the expenditures:
• Various meal and entertainment expenses with staff, donors and public officials: $7,084.
• Charitable contributions: $1,265.
• Victory party: $1,149.
• Talk show host Mike McConnell to emcee fund-raiser: $500.
• Two tickets to University of Cincinnati/Ohio State University football game at Paul Brown Stadium: $220.
• UC T-shirts and other gifts to Columbus Mayor Michal Coleman after losing bet on Ohio State game: $187.
• Framed Jim Borgman cartoon: $54.
  - 2002 annual campaign finance report
Monday's event was a signal that the move to a directly elected "stronger mayor" with a four-year term - as opposed to choosing the mayor from among the nine two-year council members - hasn't reduced candidates' reliance on off-year fund-raising.

Luken said the event doesn't necessarily mean that he's committed to running again. But for the first time Monday, he acknowledged he's leaning in that direction.

"I'm certainly thinking about it. A final decision for me is probably 18 months away," he said at Bella, the downtown bistro where he held the event.

"I'm encouraged about the direction the city is beginning to move in, and I'd like to continue that progress."

Luken said there are reasons to raise money other than for re-election, however.

The Friends of Mayor Luken Committee has spent $20,382 since Luken was elected in November 2001. Luken spent the lion's share of that money - $7,084 - on travel and various meals with staffers, donors and other elected officials. State law frowns on using taxpayer money for entertainment expenses, even if they're city related.

In the same period, he raised just $5,900, according to his 2002 annual campaign finance report filed last month with the Hamilton County Board of Elections.

Luken's cell phone bill is now paid out of campaign funds instead of taxpayer funds - keeping his phone number and his monthly call details out of the public record.

The committee gave $1,265 to charitable and nonpolitical community organizations, including the Amos Project, the United Negro College Fund and the Tender Mercies homeless shelter.

Jean Siebenaler, David Schaff, Tyrone Yates and Minette Cooper got money for their campaigns for various state and local offices.

In the past, Luken has also contributed part of his campaign war chest to other council candidates.

That will change. An obscure provision in 2001's Issue 6 - which remains in place after the taxpayer-financed election provisions were repealed last year - prohibits city candidates from giving money to another city committee.

The new law is an effort to close a loophole in which candidates could evade the $1,000 individual contribution limit by steering money through other committees.

Critics say the off-year fund-raising is a sign that the campaign finance system is broken. And it's not just in Cincinnati. Hamilton County Commissioner Todd Portune had a fund-raiser last month for his 2004 re-election campaign.

"It's just been growing on us over the years," said Bill Woods, co-chairman of the Citizens for Fair Elections, which has promoted campaign finance reform in city politics.

"Fund raising has become almost a way of life."

Woods said the off-year fund-raisers also show that voters should pay more attention to the spending side of campaign finances.

"Right now you can collect money from election to election, and spend that money any time in almost any way you want, as long as it can be justified," he said. "Contributors don't think they're contributing to an ongoing dinner fund for the mayor."

Two close political friends of the mayor - public relations consultant Brooke Hill and lobbyist Dick Weiland - organized Monday's event.

"I haven't had to do the hard sell at all. Some friends wanted to help me do this," Luken said. "It's not a lot of arm-twisting; it's just friends getting together."

E-mail gkorte@enquirer.com

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