State politics, money converge on Plano council runoffs

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Voters in May decided two Plano City Council contests and sent two more to a June 8 runoff after none of the candidates in those races received more than 50% of the vote.

Incumbent Council Member Ron Kelley will face challenger Shelby Williams for the Place 5 seat while Lily Bao and Ann Bacchus will square off for the Place 7 seat.

Whoever gets elected will have a place on the council to help shape the city’s future on a range of issues, from budget decisions to development priorities. That’s why prominent state officials and a wide array of donors across the state have taken steps to influence the city’s nonpartisan council races.

These two runoff races each feature Mayor Harry LaRosiliere’s preferred candidate running against an opponent who was endorsed, in an unusual step for a municipal race, by the state’s Republican governor.

But Gov. Greg Abbott’s endorsements are not the only example of outside politicians or individuals trying to nudge Plano voters toward their candidates of choice.

Just over one-third of the money that flowed into Plano council candidate coffers this election cycle—in all races—came from individuals with a Plano address, according to a Community Impact Newspaper analysis. The rest of the money came from individuals with non-Plano addresses or from political groups promoting their candidates of choice.

Council candidates on the May ballot reported 581 individual monetary donations totaling $239,820 between January 2018 and late April 2019. This number does not include some smaller donations or in-kind donations of goods or services that benefited the campaigns.

LaShon Ross came in third place earlier this month in the Place 7 race. Ross, a former deputy city manager, believes outside groups see Plano as a launching point for various political initiatives.

“If you take a city like Plano that has influence, that a lot of other communities look to as a model,” Ross said, “[political groups think]that if they can get Plano to sign on, then it catapults their ability to go and get support from other communities.”

A governor’s endorsement

Plano City Council elections, like other municipal races across Texas, are set up to be nonpartisan contests.

There’s no party primary that decides who can run for city office. Candidates appear on the ballot with no political identifiers next to their names. And some choose to campaign without referring to their political philosophy at all.

“The idea behind that is that there’s no Democrat or Republican way to fill a pothole,” said Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University.

But Bao and Williams have made the governor’s endorsement a prominent talking point on the campaign trail. The candidates campaigned in separate races as fiscal conservatives who would support the governor’s proposal to cap property tax revenue growth.

It was unclear whether a Texas governor had made such a splash in city politics in recent memory.

“I am sure there are precedents, but they would be relatively few,” Jillson said. “It’s uncommon for a governor to endorse in a local election, particularly in Texas where we have nonpartisan municipal elections.”

John Wittman, a spokesperson for Abbott’s campaign, confirmed the governor endorsed Bao and Williams. He did not respond to questions about whether Abbott had endorsed any other municipal candidates this year or why he chose to weigh in on these Plano races.

Williams said he has had a relationship with the governor’s team for several years because of his work as a political activist. He said he supports Abbott’s proposal to require a vote before cities can increase property tax revenues by more than a fixed percentage in a given year.

“If the Legislature can’t get it done in Austin,” Williams said, “then I have pledged to do it here in Plano—but that was before I ever received the governor’s endorsement.”

As of May 23, the latest version of the property tax proposal would require voter approval if a city wants property tax revenues to increase beyond a 3.5% cap.

LaRosiliere, who has endorsed Kelley and Bacchus, opposes the bill, saying he believes it would undermine the ability of local elected officials to govern.

“If it passes at 3.5%, like they’re proposing, we’ll live with it and we’ll deal with it, and the consequences will be felt through the services we deliver,” LaRosiliere said. “Or if the citizens are unhappy with the services, then they’ll vote for a higher rate.”

Bao said Abbott’s endorsement in her race came after her campaign reached out to his team, not the other way around.

“I’m very, very proud of the governor’s endorsement,” Bao said. “It is a way to help the voters differentiate among the candidates so they understand who they are voting for—on a lot of issues.”

Kelley said the level of partisanship and monetary donations appear to be higher now than when he first ran for council four years ago.

“Our city has grown. We’ve changed,” Kelley said. “I wish it could go back to the olden days where these races were truly nonpartisan, and you didn’t have this money that is coming into these races.”

Bacchus did not respond to requests for comment.

Money from other sources

Although only registered Plano voters are allowed to cast ballots in the city’s municipal races, campaign finance filings reveal that many others are weighing in with their pocketbooks.

Since the start of 2018, nearly $62,000 in campaign donations for Plano council candidates came from individuals whose addresses were not in Plano.

Although candidates say some were from family members, friends or business associates, at least $15,000 came from executives of prominent companies who do business in Plano, records showed.

“In many city elections, the amount of money that’s raised is quite small, and it’s from local sources,” Jillson said. “But the phrase ‘metroplex’ has a real meaning, particularly to construction executives and others who have regional economic interests.”

Corporations and labor unions are prohibited by law from donating directly to a candidate’s campaign, but individuals who own or work for them—including executives—are not, said Ian Steusloff, general counsel for the Texas Ethics Commission.

And although corporations are allowed to donate to political action committees, or PACs, corporate donations are restricted from being used to fund most types of campaign-related activities, Steusloff said.

In Plano, political action committees have directed almost $75,000 in monetary donations to city council candidates through the end of April, records show.

The majority comes from the mayor’s PAC, We Love Plano. The group has donated large sums of money to the four candidates endorsed by LaRosiliere. It has also paid for mailers supporting them, which state law considers an in-kind donation.

Bao and Williams have criticized LaRosiliere’s use of this PAC. Campaign filings show the PAC gets much of its money from the mayor’s campaign fund and occasional donations from wealthy individuals.

LaRosiliere said he set up the PAC in response to the negative messaging of his political opponents over the years. Some wealthy people have donated to his cause, he said, because they have vested interests in Plano’s economic success.

With clear differences among the candidates, voter turnout in Plano’s runoff election will be a key factor in the results. Runoff elections typically draw fewer voters compared with the regular election.

Early voting runs from May 28 through June 4. Polls are open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. June 8.

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  1. Shelby Williams

    Can you find two things wrong with the picture at the top?

    I’ll give you a hint: it HIDES the outside high-density developer money, just like my opponent and the We Love Plano PAC.

    That’s right. The amounts reported in the graphic for We Love Plano PAC and for my opponent, are both wildly misleading.

    For starters, it reports only $47,000 in contributions by We Love Plano PAC to the Mayor’s hand-picked candidates, including my opponent, but We Love Plano ACTUALLY contributed $176,780 (and that was as of a month ago–that number has only gone up).

    So what gives? Read the fine print. The article admits that “this number does not include some smaller donations or in-kind donations of goods or services that benefited the campaigns.”

    How much were the total “in-kind” contributions by We Love Plano? A measly $129,780. Hardly worth mentioning. Barely three times the direct contributions. Just lump it in with the “smaller donations.”

    This is how the picture can claim my opponent has received only $29,405, when in fact he received MUCH more. “In-kind” contributions from We Love Plano ALONE amounted to $40,333.93!

    What are these “in-kind” contributions? It’s all there in the public campaign finance reports. Each and every one is a hidden payment to Austin-based political consulting firm Murphy Nasica, widely regarded as the most underhanded political consultancy in the state. Why didn’t this article reflect that? Excellent question–ask Community Impact!

    While you’re at it, try posing the next question: why did the article state that We Love Plano gets its money from the mayor’s campaign fund and “occasional donations from wealthy individuals.”

    Occasional? The Mayor contributed $49,000 from his campaign, but these “occasional” donations amounted to $117,200. But wait, there’s more! It only took me fifteen minutes on Google after the public release of the first campaign finance report to determine that each and every contribution to We Love Plano was NOT from random “wealthy individuals” but specifically from high-density developers likely to have votes coming before council in the next term. Two of them and a Denton-based business even contributed $25,000 EACH! Again, not worth mentioning… just some rich folks making a few donations. Nothing to see here.

    What this article fails to reveal is that my incumbent opponent, the Mayor Pro-Tem, has received FAR more than the $29,405 claimed. He has received a full $55,583.93 (a massive 86% of his funding) from outside high-density developers and real estate interests.

    So whom does he serve? Check out MY bar on the graphic. I’m proudly funded by We the People, and I am answerable ONLY to the people.

    Remember what’s at stake, folks. It’s all up to us. Early voting starts Tuesday, May 28. Election Day is Saturday, June 8th.

    Stand with me for truth and for Plano.

    • Having personally reviewed in detail the campaign finance reports for all candidates and all PACs, I can confirm that what Shelby Williams says about the dollar amounts, in-kind contributions, and sources of funds (especially about outside high-density developers and real estate interests) is absolutely correct.

  2. Eugenie Anderson

    “Ethical journalism strives to ensure the free exchange of information that is accurate, fair and thorough.” Sadly Daniel Houston this ‘Community Impact’ article did not meet these standards. According to your own paper “Our journalism is held to the highest standards. We deliver unbiased, factual and relevant information to hyperlocal communities throughout Texas.” And your paper even goes further to define your visual storytelling as “unique, eyecatching, in house infographics to help readers understand news, trends and raw data.”

    This important article on the upcoming election does not meet those standards.

    The most important part of doing a story like this is “fact checking” and then using those facts to deliver the story to your readers. Your charts show that your information was sourced from the information available from the campaign finance reports filed through the end of April. I could easily check those reports and find errors in your figures…as can any of your readers; however, they count on you to report accurately public information of this nature.

    In your article you say “Council candidates on the May ballot reported 581 individual monetary donations totaling $239,820 between January 2018 and late April 2019. This number does not include some smaller donations or in-kind donations of goods or services that benefited the campaigns.” Why would In-Kind donations not be included??? Anyone going to their mailboxes in Plano can see that the “We Love Plano” PAC flyers were paid for by the Mayor’s friends and developers and these IN KIND donations were a majority of $$$$ spent and contributed to these candidates like Ron Kelley and Ann Bacchus!

    “In Kind” contributions is the story of this election! To not emphasize and detail that information is to bury and hide important facts. “When someone tells you something that is true, but leaves out important information that should be included, he can create a false impression.”

    Daniel, I would suggest that you go back and check your facts and do an updated story as soon as possible before the election. Your Plano readers deserve the full story and your business’ ethic principles of integrity state that “We are uncompromising in our ethics and values” requires it!

    Always remember “When someone tells you something that is true, but leaves out important information that should be included, he can create a false impression. A half-truth is misrepresentation the truth.”

  3. I voted for Shelby and Lilly. In the Plano Tomorrow plan, every major intersection has been zoned NC. NC means they can tear down what’s there and build those 4-story apartments that look like dorms. That’s what Harry, Ron, Ann want. I want someone who will represent their constituents and not developers. Imagine thousands more people living at every major intersection in Plano. Look at the plan’s PDF and look at the orange NC zones. See for yourself.

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Daniel Houston
Daniel Houston covers Plano city government, transportation, business and education for Community Impact Newspaper. A Fort Worth native and Baylor University graduate, Daniel reported previously for The Dallas Morning News and The Associated Press in Oklahoma City.
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