Real estate industry keeps Plano council campaigns healthy
By THEODORE KIM / The Dallas Morning News
Sunday, April 20, 2008
PLANO – The rocketing growth that once defined this city may be slowing. But the real estate cash that for years has fueled its politics continues to flow.Four of the Plano City Council's eight seats are up for election May 10, and all the races are contested. Plano has no limits on how much people can give to City Hall campaigns. "
Commercial developers, homebuilders, real estate agents and others in the industry account for one of every four dollars given to the 2008 campaigns for Plano City Council, a review of the most recent records shows.
The eight candidates reported about $57,400 in combined campaign contributions through April 10. Of that, people in real estate had given at least $14,000. Four of the council's eight seats are up for election May 10.
Real estate professionals have a natural interest in local politics because most issues that come before city halls involve property – zoning cases, building permits, drainage and landscaping rules.
But in contrast to other places, state and local laws set no limits on how much people can give to City Hall campaigns. That, in turn, creates conditions in which special interests can contribute at will and wield greater influence, experts say.
"These are life-and-death decisions, multimillion-dollar decisions, made by city councils in terms of land use and building permits. With so much at stake, there's going to be a lot of money given," said Robert M. Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles, a nonpartisan research group.
Council candidates said campaign money matters little when the time comes to cast votes.
"With every donation, I think a candidate needs to think about who's giving it and what their motivation is. But I do that," two-term incumbent Jean Callison said.
Comparing 2008 contributions with those of previous years is difficult because this is the first recent election in which every open Plano council seat is contested. Still, the ratio of developer dollars is similar to what it has been in recent years, records show.
Most of the candidates – all of whom are voted on at large – have received at least some real estate money.
• Pat Miner, who is running for the council's Place 1 seat, has raised almost $10,300. About half, $5,100, is from people in real estate, according to the analysis. Opponent Justin Nichols collected more than $1,800 of his nearly $4,600 in total contributions from the industry.
• In Place 7, Ms. Callison raised at least $2,500 of her $10,545 from real estate. Opponent Danny Morris raised less than $400 in total funds, none from the industry.
• Incumbent Harry LaRosiliere, running for a second term in Place 5, raised over $9,100, with at least $4,250 from the industry. Challenger Russel Head raised $450 total, none from real estate.
• Of her $8,430 in contributions, first-term incumbent Loretta Ellerbe raised at least $250 from the industry. While little, if any, of Place 3 opponent Mabrie Jackson's $13,575 in contributions appears to have come directly from real estate interests, her campaign treasurer is Bobby Ray, a well-known developer.
Ms. Callison, Mr. LaRosiliere, Mr. Miner and Mr. Nichols all received developer donations of $1,000 – the largest individual payments as yet reported in the election.
Mr. LaRosiliere's haul includes $1,000 each from Fehmi Karahan, founder of Plano's Legacy development, and Dallas developer David Palmer, whose company is building 15 acres of retail and housing in a project known as "West Plano Village."
Both men regularly have matters before the council. Mr. Palmer also gave $1,000 to Mr. Miner's campaign.
Contributors and candidates make no apologies for giving and receiving campaign cash, saying political donations are a legal right and have little influence, ultimately, on the decisions of policymakers.
"Participating in the political process is one of the biggest privileges as a citizen," Mr. Karahan said. "I contribute to officials that I think have done a great job. I contribute as I wish."
Said Mr. LaRosiliere, "I value the trust that voters put in me. I can't let a contribution get in the way of what's right for the citizens." Mr. Miner said he paid little attention to his donors' occupations.
At the state level, only energy companies and health-care firms have spent more on lobbying than the real estate industry in recent years, said Andrew Wheat, research director for the nonpartisan Texans for Public Justice, a group that tracks campaign cash.
But in most communities, real estate interests have the most clout, he said.
Rick Fambro, a Plano real estate broker who has given money to both Mr. Miner and Mr. Nichols, said contributions are less about gleaning votes than ensuring access to local leaders when an issue emerges.
"The expectation is that you would hope there would be some kind of degree of accessibility, a phone conversation at least," he said. "But I don't think anybody is naïve as to think money is going to buy a vote or influence."
Mr. Wheat thinks that big donors win out more often than not when conflicts arise.
"Elected officials are basically juggling two different constituencies: voters and donors," he said. "The problem is the interests of any industry are not necessarily the same as the interests of the general public."