Assemblyman says state campaign finance rules could hinder reelection bid

nherz@adn.comNovember 13, 2013 

Tim Steele, West Assembly2013

An Anchorage Assembly member says a preliminary ruling from campaign finance regulators could put him at a disadvantage in his reelection bid.

Tim Steele was elected to the Assembly last spring to finish the final year of a three-year term held by Harriet Drummond, who won a seat in the state legislature. He's up for reelection in April, and wants campaign contributions from some of the same sources he tapped in his initial bid for office.

An attorney from the Alaska Public Offices Commission initially said that Steele could accept the money for his upcoming campaign from people and groups who had already donated the annual maximum to his earlier bid.

But now the commission is reversing course, saying in a preliminary staff opinion that he can't.

Steele currently has no challenger. But if one enters the race before the end of the year, he or she could collect two rounds of money from donors -- one for 2013 and one for 2014.

But anyone who gave the maximum to Steele's campaign earlier this year would be banned from giving money to his reelection bid until January, which he says isn't fair.

"What's the motivation to run for a one-year term where you have to turn around and do it again, and you can't collect money from a significant portion of those who might support you?" he said.

The commission's executive director, Paul Dauphinais, declined to comment. The preliminary ruling is still subject to approval by commission members at a meeting next week.

Steele estimated that he has already collected $4,000 in contributions to his new campaign that would be prohibited if the commission's ruling stands. (Data from Steele's fundraising for his 2014 bid has not yet been published.)

That includes donations from former Anchorage School District Superintendent Carol Comeau, and from a labor union, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.

Steele said he took the money based on an email from a commission attorney in July advising the union that their second $1,000 contribution of the year was permissible, since they were made to influence separate elections.

Three months later, the attorney, Heather Hebdon, followed up with another email to the union, writing in capital letters that her previous advice was "INCORRECT."

She wrote that the change was based on a review of a previous commission opinion from 2001, when Dick Traini had just been elected to the Assembly to finish the last year of a three-year term -- just like Steele.

The opinion "clearly states that candidates seeking the same elective office may not accept additional contributions from contributors that have reached their annual limits, regardless of whether it is for two separate elections," Hebdon wrote.

Dan Repasky, an assistant business manager for the electrical workers union, said he thought the ruling was "wrong."

"If I'm a brand new candidate and I want to run against Tim Steele, I can collect $1,000 this year and $1,000 next year," he said. "I think it's unfair that since he's the incumbent, he's held to a different standard."

If the commission approves the preliminary opinion, Steele said that officials told him he probably would not have to return the money he'd raised based on their erroneous advice.

If that happens, though, Steele said he probably would not ask his repeat contributors for money in 2014. "It'll all balance out," he said.

Steele acknowledged that he had rolled about $5,000 left from his 2013 campaign into his 2014 account, but he said it would be difficult to determine how much of that came from potential repeat donors.

He said he would comply with the commission's ruling, but added that "it may be that we need to change the law."

Reach Nathaniel Herz at nherz@adn.com or 257-4311.

 

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