Houston mayoral candidates rake in millions in campaign money, setting new bar for early fundraising

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Houston’s next mayoral election won’t be held for another 18 months, but early candidates are already raising heaps of money and surpassing the city’s historical fundraising benchmarks.

Former Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins has banked more than $1.1 million in the first five months of his candidacy, according to his campaign data released Thursday. Lee Kaplan, a lawyer and political novice, raised $800,000 and contributed another $100,000 of his own money, according to his campaign. And former city councilor Amanda Edwards has raised about $789,000 since launching her candidacy on March 23, her campaign said.

Each of these numbers far exceeds what mayoral candidates have historically reported this far into the election, as the November 2023 campaigns continue their early start.

“Really amazing to see these numbers so big, so soon,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, professor of political science at the University of Houston. “We have not seen a fundraiser like this in the history of Houston City Hall.”

Five candidates have already announced their campaigns to succeed Mayor Sylvester Turner when his second term ends in January 2024: Hollins; Edwards; Kaplan; State Senator John Whitmire; and policeman Robin Williams.

Despite strong fundraising starts, Whitmire will be the financial heavyweight in the race. The state senator, who has served in the Texas Legislature since 1973, has a war chest of more than $9.7 million in his state account, according to his latest filing.

When Turner made the leap from the Legislature to a mayoral campaign, he was allowed to transfer $900,000 of his public funds, even though an opponent argued it violated city code. City attorneys said at the time that Turner could transfer the first $5,000 of each donation to comply with the city’s stricter cap on contributions. It is not yet known exactly how much Whitmire will be able to transfer when he officially launches his mayoral campaign, likely this fall.

Rottinghaus called the specter of this transfer “the 800-pound gorilla” in the race, which is likely to contribute to the sums announced by other candidates.

“His war chest is big enough that if you can’t raise enough money to match him, you can’t play in the big leagues,” Rottinghaus said.

Another factor: Candidates may be trying to take advantage of the active political climate ahead of the 2022 midterm elections.

“I think donors are ready to give right now,” Rottinghaus said. “Candidates are trying to strike while the pan is hot.”

Financial reports from declared candidates are due on Friday and cover the first six months of this year. They will be published later on the city’s website. Williams has yet to publicly release fundraising numbers.

The historic starting point for the Houston mayoral races was February 1 of the election year. The city had a restraining order that limited campaign fundraising prior to this point, but it was overturned in January 2015, allowing candidates to prepare earlier.

The candidates have each touted their numbers as evidence that they are organizing broad coalitions.

“This enthusiastic and immediate response to our campaign will help ensure Houston elects a mayor who has the experience and vision to ensure we can live in a city where every Houstonian has the opportunity to thrive,” Edwards said. , who has $715,000. hand as the campaign kicks off. Her campaign said she had raised $7,800 a day since her announcement.

Hollins, who has $941,000 in the bank, pointed out that more than 60% of his 2,408 donations were under $100. Its donors include rapper Bun B, former US Attorney General Eric Holder and Austin Mayor Steve Adler.

“We showed we could muster the resources to win – but we did so much more,” Hollins said. “We’ve started a movement that brings together the best ideas and solutions to make Houston the best city in America in which to live, work and raise a family.”

Kaplan’s campaign said he had more than 1,000 individual donors and had $700,000 available.

“I’m proud of the fact that my supporters are friends from high school, college and law school; as well as opposing colleagues and attorneys who know me and my work ethic to serve the people of Houston,” Kaplan said.

Hollins provided data to support his numbers to the Chronicle. Edwards and Kaplan said they were still finalizing their reports on Thursday.

Rottinghaus said each candidate’s report was impressive. This is the first candidacy for Hollins and Kaplan, which means they have been able to build political networks in a short time. And Edwards’ report will help ease concerns about his viability after his fifth-place finish in the 2020 U.S. Senate race, he said.

The numbers set a new bar for fundraising so soon. At this point in the 2015 race, then-state Rep. Sylvester Turner said he had raised $166,600 in donations and had $366,351 in the bank, though he has yet to officially declared his candidacy for mayor. Hollins has raised more money so far this year than Turner brought in for all of 2014: $824,000, according to state documents from the mayor at the time. Turner would later begin his 2015 mayoral bid with $900,000 he transferred from his state account.

Of the other nominees that year, former Kemah Mayor Bill King and then-Sheriff Adrian Garcia reported no contributions in July 2014 and had not announced any nominations at that time. The restraining order was still in place at that time, and Garcia was prohibited from transferring his county account. Then-City Council member Stephen Costello brought in $215,600 in contributions, with about $308,325 on hand. Each of these candidates would cross the $1 million threshold in the actual election year.

Eighteen months before his reelection, Turner brought in $585,000 in contributions, although he had a campaign account of $2.2 million at that time. It crossed the $1 million threshold in January and July 2019 and raised $1.7 million in the month between the general election and the 2019 runoff.

Tony Buzbee, the high-profile attorney who advanced to a runoff with Turner, self-funded his campaign. He started with $2 million of his own money in January 2019 and has vowed not to make outside donations. King also launched his second offering in January 2019 with $100,000 of his own money.

dylan.mcguinness@chron.com

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