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Senate Candidates' Dash for Cash

Howell benefits from developers and PACs; Hunt from family ties.

The race for the 32nd State Senate seat is now the third most expensive general election in the state and its only September. Two-term Sen. Janet Howell, a Democrat from Reston, is facing an increasingly expensive battle against a first-time candidate, Republican Dave Hunt, of Great Falls.

Local real estate developers, defense contractors, trial lawyers and Democratic political action committees (PACs) have financially fueled incumbent Howell’s bid to return to Richmond for a third term, according to the most recent campaign finance reports released on Sept. 15. The latest reports also show that the self-financed Hunt continues to rely heavily on his family’s pocketbook and his family’s companies to pay for his uphill challenge.

With six weeks to go before Election Day, the two candidates have raised more than $625,415, with Howell having brought in $345,842 to Hunt’s $279,573. In the last reporting cycle, however, the novice Hunt out-raised the incumbent Howell, who has been in the Senate since 1992, by slightly more than $4,000. Howell biggest single donation during the last reporting period was $10,000 from Gov. Mark Warner’s (D) One Virginia PAC.

“It’s a perk of incumbency. Having worked in that kind of an office, I know where most of the money comes in and that comes in from PACs,” said Brian Kelly, Hunt’s campaign manger. “As a challenger we don’t get that and it shows that we are really outworking her and out-raising her.”

Meanwhile, Hunt received his two largest donations last period totalling $10,000 combined from two companies both of which have family ties to the candidate. Hunt received $7,500 from Care Rehab & Orthopedic, a McLean-based medical supplies company whose president is Christian Hunt, the candidate's brother. The candidate's other brother, Steve Hunt, donated $2,500, in the name of his company, Shipmate, Inc. of Redondo Beach, Ca. In addition, Hunt disclosed another $8,914 in in-kind contributions from his personal and business accounts during the July and August reporting period. Since his campaign began in 2002, Hunt and his business, Landon & Stark, an Arlington translation and trademark firm, have loaned or donated more than $140,000 to his campaign, according to the non-partisan Virginia Public Access Project (VPAP).

“The finance report is just one of the things that shows how much we want this,” Kelly said. “It also shows that people hear Dave’s message and it is really jiving with them.”

Jan Reeves, the head of the Fairfax County Democratic Party and Howell’s campaign manger, downplayed the significance of Hunt’s fundraising successes during the last reporting period. “It’s a targeted race by the Republicans so we expect to see tons of money coming in,” Reeves said. “At least, he’s raising some money now, which he hadn’t been for quite some time. Before, he was basically self-financing though I still think to a great extent, he probably still is.”

Kelly responded saying that his candidate has invested his time as well as his money. “That shows how much he wants it,” Kelly said. “Janet will say he is trying to buy the race. If someone is willing to put up his or her hard earned money to run then that just goes to show how strongly he feels about this. He tells me everyday that he has taken money out of his kid’s college education fund to do this because if he doesn’t, by the time they go to college everything will be so messed up in this county.”

Thanks to the General Assembly, Virginia remains one of only a few states that does not place any limits on the amount of money that an individual or corporation can donate to a candidate.

WITH THE CAMPAIGN’S stretch run nearing, Howell finds herself with four times more money in the bank than Hunt. Howell has $187,280 to Hunt’s $46,801. Only two candidates for State Senate have more cash on hand than Howell, the reports showed.

“The big thing is not so much how much money you put into it, it is how you spend it and if you have enough money to get your message out to people,” Reeves said. “We are sitting with a lot more cash on hand. I think we spend our money much more wisely. I know Janet looks at every nickel and dime.”

The most expensive election for a seat in the State Senate this cycle was actually a primary battle between an established Republican incumbent, Sen. Thomas Norment, Jr. (R-3rd) and a more conservative insurgent candidate Paul Jost. Norment, the Republican from Williamsburg, won and, to date, has raised $881,953. In a losing effort, Jost raised more than $730,000 compared to Norment’s current general election opponent, Democrat Mary Minor who has raised less than $17,000 total.

Of competitive targeted races, only the general election between Sen. Russell Potts, Jr. (R-27th) and his Democratic opponent Mark Herring has generated deeper pockets full of campaign cash than the Howell-Hunt battle.

“This is going to be the race to watch,” Kelly said. “For a 12-year incumbent to take so much heat from a challenger is unheard of. She knows she is in trouble. The Democratic Party knows she’s in trouble. Gov. Warner knows she’s in trouble. We’re outworking her. We are going to work her into the ground.”

Steve Pazmino, the director of the Democratic Senate Caucus, the state party's political arm in Richmond, isn't worried. "I think if the other side were going to make this a target you would see more contributions from individual legislators or the Caucus," Pazmino said.

Kelly said his candidate is not waiting for help from Richmond and he said that any future donation from the state party would be "icing on the cake."

Howell has raised more money than any other Democrat, and all but four Republicans, running for the General Assembly this election cycle that dates back to Jan. 1, 2000.

Pointing to the $71,650 Howell has received from the real estate and construction sector since 2000, the Hunt campaign has tried to paint Howell as a puppet for major developers like West Group or Broad Run Investment and their high-dollar contributions. “The ratio of development money as to all the other PACs that have given to her is astronomical. In a State Senate race that is incredible that she would receive that much money from one industry,” Kelly said. “It just goes to show that ‘their’ senator is in trouble. When it comes down to it, they know that when they go down to Richmond, anything they want done, they’ll have it done by ‘their’ senator.”

Reeves disagreed. “I don’t think you can just paint a big brush and say any money from developers or lawyers is tainted or whatever,” she said. “Besides I noticed from his report that there was a substantial amount of money coming from the same source.”

Pazmino pointed to the number of contributors who have donated to Howell's campaign as proof of her grassroots support, "as opposed to someone who is just financing his own campaign."

More than 70 percent of Howell’s contributions, according to VPAP, were for more than $500. During the 2003 election cycle, Howell has received 922 donations of $100 or less for $40,404, or nearly 12 percent of her total raised, VPAP reported. For Howell, 614 donations exceeded $100 and accounted for $304,444, or 88 percent of her total.

Similarly, three-quarters of Hunt’s contributions have been larger than $500. Slightly more than $14,000 of Hunt’s contributions has come from the 220 donations of $100 or less. To date, 233 of Hunt’s donations were $100 or greater and accounted for $140,182, or 50 percent of his total. “Dave doesn’t care if you have a million dollars or five dollars, he’s going to do what’s best for everybody,” Kelly said.

Again, Howell’s campaign disagreed, arguing that Howell’s was the true grassroots campaign. “(Hunt) obviously has money and he is willing to invest it himself, that’s fine,” she said. “But we have a substantial number of contributors, people willing to send us $5, $10 or $15. I think that shows more of a grassroots support. That is what I want to see, a lot of people making an investment in the campaign.”