ST. PETERSBURG — When Steve Lapinski set out to help a little-known candidate win an open City Council seat, he had a goal in mind. He wanted to raise as much as $85,000 in about six months.
In other words, to run a solid campaign — one that would introduce a candidate with no political experience to voters and make them like her — they'd aim to raise more money than she would earn in two years on the council.
As it turns out, Lapinski and his candidate, Amy Foster, haven't needed anywhere near that kind of money — her opponent in the Nov. 5 election has done little fundraising — but their initial target was not far off from what many now say is the cost of running for local office.
As little as eight years ago, council campaigns in Florida's fourth largest city were small-time affairs. You could win a seat with $15,000. You could enlist a friend to be your campaign manager and pay his cell phone bill as a thank you.
But increasingly, local politics is being professionalized, as more candidates turn to consultants who encourage them to raise between $50,000 and $100,000 for a job that is still officially part-time.
"It is very expensive," said Nick Janovsky, campaign manager for District 4 council candidate Darden Rice.
Before the primary, Rice had already broken the last fundraising record, set in 2009 by council member Steve Kornell, who raised $71,000. Her latest filings show she has now raised just short of $100,000.
From the outset, she said she made an ambitious fundraising plan to "communicate we're serious by bringing in high numbers, which for better or worse is valued in politics."
Her war chest would have seemed obscene in 2005, the last time she made a bid for the council, but today is eliciting shrugs and mild envy from the city's political class. Meanwhile, her opponent, Carolyn Fries, has raised $15,337, a number that looks as though it belongs to a previous era.
Some of the amped-up fundraising was to be expected. When Pinellas Supervisor of Elections Deborah Clark began emphasizing mail ballots, the county's entire election timeline shifted.
Election Day has now become election month, said City Council Chairman Karl Nurse, who is running for re-election in District 6. "That's really what's driving the cost increases," he said.
Candidates feel compelled to send mailers the first week of October, when mail ballots arrive, and again in November, to remind those who still vote in person. In between, they might sprinkle the city with a few more, always toeing the line between upping their name recognition and annoying people.
Before the primary, Rice and Foster's campaigns sent three to four pieces of mail each. Designed by paid consultants, those mailers that many carelessly toss in the trash can cost upwards of $20,000 to produce and distribute. They are by far the greatest expense of most council campaigns.
Factor in TV commercials, which many candidates are now doing, and it's another $15,000.
Then consider the cost of the consultants themselves. Janovsky said the campaign pays him between $3,000 to $4,000 a month and while hiring someone like him is not yet standard, most campaigns will bring in a part-time adviser, who could cost them about $1,000 a month.
Florida's political parties also have played a central role in changing how local, ostensibly nonpartisan races are run. Both the state Democrats and Republicans, who once thumbed their noses at municipal races, now look at them as a bench of future candidates who require professional grooming.
As a result of the heightened attention, council candidates are more likely to be supported or attacked by political parties and well-funded outside groups.
In St. Petersburg, the fact that the top two fundraising record holders for council — Rice and Kornell — are both gay Democrats is not a coincidence. More susceptible to attacks from Republicans, they have worked harder to raise money and define themselves before their opponents can.
"Because they were pioneers, they had to climb a higher mountain," Nurse said.
In Kornell's case in 2009, a partisan attack never materialized. With a month before the general election, Rice has smashed Kornell's record and is still asking for donations.
"One thing to remember is that we have just as many voters to go after as the mayoral candidates," Lapinksi said. In the general election, all voters can weigh in on council races, regardless of which district they live in.
"When you think about it that way, when you think about what our job is, what Darden has raised is not a ridiculous number," he said.
But is it the new normal?
For this city, the answer is not yet. A candidate can run for office, and win, on far less than Rice's campaign has raised.
"We are still at a level where there are still a lot of friends and families and neighbors and acquaintances and people active in town who contribute," Nurse said. "Happily, the big money folks still disrespect council sufficiently."
Contact Anna M. Phillips at [email protected] or (727) 893-8779.