money politics

By Tyler Buchanan

Ohio Capital Journal

A few years ago, during the lull before the Nelsonville Parade of the Hills, a young campaign volunteer made their way down a busy sidewalk. Most of the families had come prepared with empty shopping bags, awaiting an onslaught of candy, but some children did not have one.

They might have been forced to collect treats by hand, except that the campaign volunteer offered them all tote bags. Each was emblazoned with a political candidate’s name and slogan.

Down the street the volunteer went, then back up the other side, until basically the whole route was full of excitable Nelsonville youngsters waving and displaying their brand-new bags.

The strategy was a two-fer; not only did providing bags bring good will to families, but the kids brought their loot with them when the parade ended. And just like that, the candidate got their name inside hundreds of Nelsonville homes a few months before election day.

You can tell a lot about a politician by the way they spend money. In Ohio, a candidate’s campaign committee can expense just about anything — so long as the funds aren’t used for any personal or business reasons.

“All expenditures made by a campaign committee must be for influencing the result of an election, a campaign expense, the candidate’s duties of public office, or making a charitable contribution,” the Ohio Campaign Finance Handbook advises.

So long as the money is used for election purposes — parade candy bags included — state law allows it.

Candidates are required to regularly submit campaign finance filings, which include donations and expenditures. The most recent deadline was Jan. 31, 2020, to disclose campaign finance activity through Dec. 31, 2019.

The Ohio Capital Journal reviewed the campaign expenditure filings for every single candidate for the Ohio House of Representatives and the Ohio Senate, both Democratic and Republican.

The campaign trail can get expensive in a hurry. Besides the obvious costs such as filing fees, candidates spend money to build websites, purchase lawn signs and hire political consultants.

The fortunate ones who possess either a giant war chest or good fortune (i.e. running unopposed) can afford to get creative. They often donate money to local causes and organizations. House Minority Leader Emilia Sykes, D-Akron, donated $500 of her committee’s funds to the Youth Excellence Performing Arts Workshop in her hometown, while Speaker of the House Larry Householder, R-Glenford, donated a large sum to the Coshocton County Fair.

Experienced officeholders take the right to expense “duties of public office” to heart. They buy meals for staff members, drinks for volunteers. Rep. Rick Carfagna, R-Genoa Twp., expensed a trip to Bath and Body Works to buy air fresheners for his office. Rep. Erica Crawley, D-Columbus, expenses her frequent Lyft trips and parking fees.

Rep. Rick Carfagna, R-Genoa Twp., expensed air fresheners to keep his office smelling good.

Rep. Niraj Antani, R-Miamisburg, even expensed his registration to the American Association of Physicians of Indian Origin Conference from July 2019. The conference took place in Atlanta, and his filings show he expensed the Delta flight down there along with a stay at the local Marriott hotel.

Here are several other odd ways in which candidates and their committees spent money in 2019:

Helium

Sen. Stephanie Kunze, R-Hilliard, is taking no chances in her reelection effort in the 16th District. A quartet of Democrats are vying for the nomination to take Kunze on, but have they any noble gasses to compete with? To date, no.

Citizens for Stephanie Kunze expensed $7 for helium in July and another $5 in September via purchases at the Geer Gas Corporation of Columbus.

Charcoal

Many candidates paid for meal supplies. Sen. Frank Hoagland, R-Mingo Junction, is likely the only one to have expensed the charcoal used for a cookout. Hoagland for Ohio bought $220 of charcoal from Lowe’s for a late-September fundraiser, also spending nearly $300 to rent chairs for the event. (The food came from Sam’s Club and a pair of other local businesses.)

Rubber Stamp

We’ve heard of officials “rubber stamping” things, but a Democratic challenger is using one in the literal sense. In his quest for the House 52nd District seat, the Charles J. Horn Campaign Committee spent $27.77 on a rubber stamp, a stamp pad and some ink. The purchases were made at the Hathaway Stamp Company in downtown Cincinnati.

100 Jars of Honey

Rep. Gil Blair’s got himself a sticky situation, and we don’t mean the two Democrats challenging him for the 63rd District seat. The Weathersfield native’s committee spent $450 on 100 jars of honey last December.

What does one do with 100 jars of honey, you might ask? The expense filing, in a nod to transparent government, helpfully notes the jars were to be “passed out for campaign promotion.”

Rep. Gil Blair, D-Weathersfield, expensed 100 jars of honey to be given to supporters.

A Giant Tent

Larry Householder has more campaign cash than he knows what to do with. Even after donating $1 million to the House Republican Campaign Committee, the House Speaker’s committee still had $1.1 million on hand headed into 2020. He’s unopposed in his 72nd District reelection bid, so why not enjoy some time at the Delaware County Fair?

Householder’s committee spent a whopping $32,500 on a “VIP Tent” at the 2019 fair.

The fair offers four such tents for the Wednesday and Thursday of fair week. Buyers get food, drink tickets and programs which detail the harness race schedule, a fair official told the Capital Journal.

Householder does not represent Delaware County. However, he is a devoted supporter of the county fairs in his district. His committee spent thousands of dollars on livestock sale purchases, with the proceeds going toward youth 4-H members in Perry and Licking counties.

Toll Booth Fees 

Politicians expense many different types of travel, most often by car and plane. The Emilia Sykes campaign committee filed $3 in travel tolls accrued by her trips on the Ohio Turnpike.

The House Minority Leader is not the only one to expense unusual travel costs. Sen. Theresa Gavarone, R-Bowling Green, represents many of the islands on Lake Erie. Citizens for Gavarone covered several of her ferry trips to and from South Bass Island and Kelly’s Island, along with a golf cart to traverse the village of Put-in-Bay. The ferry rides cost a total of $80, with the golf cart rental costing $19.

A Democratic candidate in Southwest Ohio was frugal with her travel decisions. Morgan Showen for Ohio expensed a Greyhound Bus ticket for the House 54th District candidate at a cost of $34.

A Dozen Pumpkins

Sarah Fowler and Rep. Catherine Ingram may have plenty of common in the Ohio House if they win their respective elections this November.

Fowler, a Republican, is running for the 99th District, while Ingram, D-Cincinnati, is seeking her third term representing the 32nd District. Both appear to enjoy quality produce.

A few weeks before Halloween, the Committee to Elect Sarah Fowler spent $24 for a dozen pumpkins at Cork Cold Springs Orchard, located in the Ashtabula County village of Rock Creek. Ingram for the People spent $105 on vegetables for a cookout. All they need is some of Sen. Hoagland’s charcoal for some bipartisan fun.

Cleveland Browns Tickets From Bernie Kosar

It’s no secret that the former Cleveland Browns quarterback is a fan of the Ohio Republican Party.

It’s also no secret that Rep. Tom Patton, R-Strongsville, is a prolific fundraiser. Last summer, the Friends of Tom Patton committee invested $33,000 to host his annual golf outing, which wound up bringing in more than $100,000 to his campaign.

Rep. Tom Patton, R-Strongsville, expensed football tickets for the Cleveland Browns.

Last fall, the committee spent around $1,400 for three sets of Browns tickets, with one purchase involving Kosar. (It’s unclear which games the purchases were for, but it must be duly noted that the 2019 Browns lost all three home games in September and October.)

Several other candidates’ committees spent money on sporting tickets. The committee for Rep. Richard Brown, D-Canal Winchester, paid more than $1,000 on Ohio State University tickets. The filings do not specify which sport was attended.

Combs

One thing is certain: supporters of Rep. Bob Cupp will have the best hair in Ohio. The Lima Republican is running for reelection in the 4th District and his committee spent $788 on “imprinted combs.”

Want to see what your area’s candidates spent on the campaign trail, or who donated to their campaigns? Click here for the Ohio Secretary of State’s public search tool. Search a candidate committee by typing in their last name, then click “Reports Filed” on the right-hand side. Click on the “Cover Page” for the most recent 2020 report and view contributions and expenditures from there. 

Tyler Buchanan is an award-winning journalist who has covered Ohio politics and government for the past decade. A Bellevue native and graduate of Bowling Green State University, he most recently spent 6 1/2 years as a reporter and editor of The Athens Messenger and Vinton-Jackson Courier newspapers. He is a member of the BG News Alumni Society Board and was a 2019 fellow in the Kiplinger Program in Public Affairs Journalism. Read more Ohio Capital Journal stories here,