Watching the dollars
City Hall Watcher #150: the launch of a new project tracking campaign donations all the way back to 2006, plus more news — it's a milestone issue so come celebrate
Hey there! Happy anniversary to us. Today marks the 150th issue of City Hall Watcher. (The official count does not include the bonus The Week at Toronto City Hall issues, though we celebrate those too, of course.)
When I let out a deep breath and hit “send” on issue #1 in January 2019, I had no idea if there was a market for a paid newsletter about municipal government in Toronto. I was reasonably certain this was a fool-ass experiment that would crash and burn in a few weeks.
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This week I am excited to launch a new project. With just 336 days to go before Toronto’s next municipal election, I’m diving into the deep, dark world of campaign finance and candidate donations, with a special edition of Open Data Challenge. Let’s hope it’s the start of something big.
— Matt Elliott
Open Data Challenge: campaign finance edition
Open Data Challenge is a recurring City Hall Watcher feature in which we challenge ourselves to analyze Open Data datasets
The challenge: Toronto’s got a municipal election next year, and with it will come the usual feeding frenzy of fundraising. I’ve never felt like I’ve had a good enough grasp on this side of municipal politics, so I wanted to spend some time diving into the data, in the hopes of answering questions like:
Who has donated the most money to mayoral and council candidates recently?
Who has received the most donations?
What parts of the city do donations come from?
Is there a way to track donations by registered lobbyists?
It seemed like it’d be a big, complicated task, and — spoiler alert — it was.
The method: The data available on the Open Data portal gives us a list of anyone who donated more than $100 to a mayoral or council campaign dating back to 2006.
I downloaded all the spreadsheets for mayoral and council races — I’m choosing to ignore school board trustees, because I’ve been ignoring them for more than a decade now and it seems to have worked out okay — and combined them into a single spreadsheet, then started creating various aggregated views to analyze the data.
In doing this, I created a monster. The raw, combined spreadsheet totals 797.2 MB.
Undeterred, I kept at it, creating a list of the top donors, the top donors with names that match registered lobbyists (past and present), the top postal codes, and specific analysis related to council members elected or re-elected in 2018. Whew.
The caveats: This data provides only two pieces of identifying information about campaign donors. We get their full name — first and last — and postal code. I decided to make totals using only the name data.
Theoretically matching to both name and postal code would have provided an extra degree of certainty, but it turns out a whole lot of people have moved postal codes since 2006.
But only using names means that there’s a real risk of combining data from two people who just happen to have the same name — imagine a donor named something like “John Smith.” To guard against this, I manually went over the top donor lists below, comparing and googling postal codes, and I’m reasonably confident that the names on the top lists below are indeed singular individuals. But let me know if you spot any errors.
One other caveat I haven’t figured out how to deal with yet: some people donate with variations of their name. For example, I could donate as both “Matt Elliott” and “Matthew Elliott” and “Matt D. Elliott.” I haven’t come up with a good way to scan for and combine these kinds of entries. I’d welcome any ideas.
The results: Since 2006, $35.6 million has been donated to candidates for mayor and council by more than 40,000 donors.
I have made a cut-down version of the spreadsheet behind this data available on Google Sheets.
The person who has donated the most overall money to mayoral or council campaigns since 2006 is Doug Ford. Maybe you’ve heard of him.
The premier contributed more than a half-million dollars of his own money to his failed 2014 mayoral bid. (Before 2018, contributions by candidates and their spouses were exempt from any spending limits.)
His brother, the late Mayor Rob Ford, holds the second spot, spending more than $200,000 on his re-elect bid in 2014 before he dropped out to seek cancer treatment.
A lot has been written about the Fords’ folksy populism as the “secret sauce” of their political success, but I don’t think enough has been written about how part of their advantage was just a willingness to spend absurd amounts of money seeking positions of power.
The entire top 15 is self-funding or spousal funding for candidates, which is interesting. It’s incredible how much of their own money people will spend to get this kind of gig.
But I wanted to get a view of top donations by people who tend to work behind-the-scenes to exert influence.
To do that, I generated a list of lobbyists, past and present, from Toronto’s lobbyist registry, and matched the names of lobbyists with the names of donors.
Most of the top 15 is made of people from the development industry, as you’d expect.
With data sourced for top overall donors and top lobbyist donors, we can apply that to the slate of councillors elected or re-elected in 2018, and start to get an idea of where their funding generally comes from.
But the most revealing analysis might be looking at total donations by postal code.
This list underscores the political influence a relatively small group of powerful families attempt to wield over local government.
I was not expecting tiny Kleinburg, Ontario — decidedly not part of Toronto — to take the third spot on the list, and the first non-Ford spot. Donors from the Kleinburg postal code include family names like Ciccolini, Romano, Lecce, Mazzotta and Colucci.
In total, about 20% of donations since 2006 have come from postal codes outside Toronto. Of the $35.6 million raised, $6.8 million came from postal codes that start with “L” — 905 locales.
When you map out the mappable postal code areas within Toronto for total donations, the result looks like this.
Not a surprising result, but notable for how much it correlates with several other kinds of maps including:
I’m not done with this data yet. The next steps will be start building donation profiles of current members of Council, really digging into the nature of their financial support. Stay tuned.
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More from Matt: on ride-hailing, and parking minimums
📰 For the Toronto Star last week, I wrote about the latest turn in the ongoing Uber/Taxi saga. Why is it so hard to get this right?
🗞 For the Star this week, I dig into City Hall’s long-in-the-works debate on parking minimums. I do my best impression of a libertarian. It’s not very convincing. The impression, I mean. I do hope the column is convincing.
Look for it in your favourite newspaper.
In other news
I don’t get a lot of great opportunities to make pie charts, so when I saw the updated breakdown of city versus federal versus provincial funding in Toronto’s HousingTO plan, I jumped at the chance. There should be more discussion of the provincial government’s lack of contributions compared to the federal government.
Speaking of this week’s debate at Planning & Housing Committee on eliminating parking minimums, keep an eye on some of the communications from residents’ groups. This one, from the Davenport Triangle Residents Association, blasts the idea, saying, “The trendy city war on the automobile is complete liberal naivety.” They also issue a challenge: “try to pick up a case of beer on your bike in the winter.” Proud to say I plan to do exactly that.
The TTC’s vaccine mandate, and ATU’s opposition to it, has led to reduction in TTC service of about 10% starting today. Steve Munro has route-by-route details. This has felt like a long game of chicken, so I wonder if the fact that the TTC has now held firm even in the face of service cuts will motivate some of the holds-outs to get vaccinated.
There would appear to be no end to the TTC’s technology woes. The Budget Committee’s latest operating variance report noted that, “due to technical issues”, the TTC was unable to provide Q3 financial information. Meanwhile, the new — much-delayed — website isn’t exactly getting rave reviews.
The Week at Toronto City Hall
➡️ See The Week at Toronto City Hall #5 by Neville Park.
City Hall Watcher #150
Thanks for reading! I’ve still got a lot I’d like to do with this campaign finance data. If you think you can help — and would like to receive a copy of my 797MB spreadsheet file — please don’t hesitate to get in touch. It would be cool to make this into some sort of database tool ahead of election day.
Again, a very special thank you to all who have subscribed, especially you day-oners. This is undoubtedly the best journalism gig I’ve ever had, and I’m really looking forward to continuing to grow and expand this newsletter with more writers, more features, and — sorry, you can’t stop me — more puns.
Neville will be back Friday with another look-ahead at a busy City Hall calendar. After that, I’ll be back next week with an update to the COUNCIL SCORECARD. The week after that: it’s LOBBYIST WATCH time again. Never stop never stopping.