PILOT: Tracking local campaign cash
your own database reveals more than just who gave what to whom.
By David Gulliver
Did we know this guy got more than half his contributions from developers?
That’s what I asked reporting partner Bob McCabe. It was a
Thursday afternoon, I think. We were looking at an Access query.
But that’s getting way ahead of the story – four days
ahead. Virginia has elections when no one else does. In November,
we elected a governor. In May, we were electing city councils and
school boards. We cover races in five cities – 77 candidates.
For two previous council elections, before I joined The Virginian-Pilot,
reporters had compiled a campaign contributions database. Candidates
turn in paper forms on a Monday, eight days before the election.
We pound the information into a database and turned out a quick
Those stories were starting to look stale. We’d done the “big
donors” story, the donations-by-zip-code thing. I polled the
city reporters. Jason Skog wanted to look at donations by interest
groups. The team agreed. Our existing database captured donor name
and address, employer, occupation, date, amount and type of contribution
(in-kind or cash). That’s all you need for basic stories,
but to track interest groups we needed more.
Tracking interest groups
First, think about what you want to see. You want to assign donors,
based on their jobs, to a few definable groups. Don’t do this
from scratch – steal ideas from someone who has done the work
already. The Center
for Responsive Politics and the Virginia
Public Access Project both break down campaign money by interest
On the VPAP site, click the pull-down menu for “occupation”
and you get 17 categories. Some aren’t relevant for local
races – for example, defense and energy companies don’t
lobby city hall very often. We brainstormed and settled on 10 groups,
including construction/real estate, environmentalists, government
employees, school employees, tourism industry, political parties
or politicians. Most panned out; some, like civic groups, didn’t.
I wrote a short guide, giving examples of which companies and people
belonged in which groups. You can’t anticipate everything,
but at least everyone starts on the same page. Then I asked the
team how data input went last time. I took their suggestions and
tinkered with the database’s front-end form.
I used to scoff at front-ends, but they’re important. Most
people aren’t database-proficient, but they’ve all seen
Internet forms. So make the database look like a Web page by adding
a front end. The Baltimore Sun’s Mike Himowitz has a great
tutorial on making a search form at www.himowitz.net/html/front_ends.html.
Or contact me and I’ll forward a copy of ours for your reverse-engineering
Some design tips
• Consider your source material: We put the data fields
in the same order as the paper forms. That way, you type as you
read, no fumbling around.
• Anticipate the data. Study the paper reports: You’ll
see examples of odd data like two-name donors (“John and Jane
Smith”) and two-address donors (both P.O. box and street address)
that you need to handle. You’ll also get ideas of recurring
themes. In Virginia, companies can donate to candidates. To easily
compare business and individual donations, we added a flag field
(type “Y” if a donor is a company).
• Minimize typing and mistakes: We used Access’
“combo box” feature to create pull-down lists for candidate
and for interest group. That way, bad typists don’t mangle
the name data, but good typists can enter the first letters and
the rest auto-fills. You also can use standard abbreviations –
for example, we used “VB” for Virginia Beach. Run a
cleanup routine later.
Finally, news researcher Diana Diehl and I test drove it. Then I
went on a long-planned vacation – returning the Monday morning
the reports were due. I was there, but the data wasn’t. Most
candidates didn’t file until 5 p.m., or the next day. It took
until noon Tuesday to round up all 77 reports. When we did, we found
a surprise – some amazingly thick filings. They’d been
busier than in past years. (In the end, we had 2,270 contributions,
60 percent more than last time.)
We scrambled to borrow some reporters and editorial assistants.
Most input into separate copies of the database. That was by necessity
– some bureaus are off the network – and by design.
If a file got corrupted, we wouldn’t lose everything. (One
reporter did accidentally delete records, but we repaired the damage.)
I appended the files later.
Typing ran well into Thursday. I ran preliminary results so we could
start reporting, then did cleanup and consistency checks into Friday.
Leave time for those checks. One drawback of manpower is that people
interpret and code data differently. I ran queries to test that
– for example, did Bob code John Smith as a attorney while
Jason called him a developer? Surprisingly, there was little variation.
About 40 donors needed standardizing.
Friday morning, I hacked out a first draft and ran final numbers
while Jason and Bob added sections on key races. The data had pointed
us to a handful. A day before, Bob and I had broken down the sprawling
suburb of Chesapeake, where some residents want open space, others
more growth and a bigger tax base.
W.P. “Pete” Burkhimer looked like a shoe-in, the top
fund-raiser among nine people running for five seats. The database
showed he raised 60 percent of his money from the construction group.
Burkhimer, a consultant who represents developers before city boards,
told us that made sense. He said he was running because he wanted
to put out a welcome mat for business.
Land use is the most local of issues, so you expect developers to
be politically active. And they were – they gave more than
one-fourth of all the money raised. But they supported Burkhimer
far more than other candidates. Developers’ dominance, with
Burkhimer as a lead example, was the theme of our Sunday 1A story.
Voters went to the polls Tuesday. By that night, he had placed sixth
in the five-seat race, missing out by 697 votes.
David Gulliver is database projects reporter for The Virginian-Pilot.
He can be reached at DGulliver@pilotonline.com.
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