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Campaign finance goes local
By David Raynor, Raleigh News & Observer

Since 1988, The N&O has maintained some sort of campaign finance database, tracking contributions to Congressional candidates from NC, statewide candidates such as Governor and Lt. Gov. and, since 1997, General Assembly candidates. It's a Visual Foxpro database. We hire temps to key the data.

In 1999, we began discussing ways to incorporate local campaign races into the "Money Machine", our campaign finance database. The reason was that developers were beginning to spend a lot more money locally because of efforts to slow growth. We wanted to find out just how much they were spending and why.

Our goals were:
  1. Say authoritatively that the development community (home builders, contractors, realtors, architects, landscapists) was the single biggest source of money going to local candidates
  2. Identify the candidates getting the most money
  3. Link the money to policy - tracing votes on rezonings and developments to contributions
  4. Identify elected officials and candidates who are developers themselves.
Five reporters collected the reports and we spent about 4-6 weeks keying the reports, checking the totals and doing general clean-up work. The reports then wrote themselves. The development community gave near $550,000 or 44% of the money that candidates for municipal and county commission races in 4 counties received from IDENTIFIABLE donors from 1/1/98 through 6/30/00. We started with 1/1/98 because that's when local candidates were first required to list the occupations of their contributors. In one small town of about 12,000 people, developers contributed half of all the money raised for three winners in a town election.

Problems we had:
  1. Could not identify every contributor, despite the requirement of candidates to identify their contributors. For instance, those who give under $100 don't have to be itemized
  2. Candidates who spend less than $3,000 don't have to file reports at all
  3. A few reports were simply illegible. Some reports' summary pages did not match the details provided, which made it difficult to check totals.
Other problems. Local candidates did not have any type of ID, so I just assigned a 7-digit candidate ID for each race in each county. I added a general occupation field, in addition to the occupation field listed on the report, and just ran some basic search and replace commands to fill in the gaps. (For example, "replace newtitle with "Development" for oldtitle="develop" or oldtitle="builder" or oldtitle="realtor", etc.). Other general occupations we included were: Accountant, Attorney, Banking/Finance, Retired, Insurance, Homemaker, Health Care, Education and Not Identified).

We then took those that were not electronically identified, printed a list and the reporters went through and filled in the gaps where they could, just from knowing the contributor or using other sources to identify them.

We incorporated the local campaign reports into our main campaign database, which covers statewide and General Assembly races. In other words, we did not keep it separate.

We've produced several big stories from the database and many more smaller ones including routine checks against contributors who might be mentioned in any story.

David Raynor is the database manager at The News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C.