Elections usually have candidates scrambling for large donations, but in Pittsburgh's western neighborhoods, the competition is over who can do without big checks.
Coming in the midst of a push for limits on local campaign contributions, the contestants in a Feb. 3 special election for the City Council seat formerly held by Dan Deasy -- now a state representative -- are putting voluntary caps on donor largesse.
All four candidates disclosed campaign contributions through last Monday to the Allegheny County Elections Division on Friday. The disclosures come the week after Mayor Luke Ravenstahl and County Executive Dan Onorato introduced identical city and county proposals that would allow individuals to contribute no more than $4,600 to a candidate per four-year election cycle, and political action committees, or PACs, no more than $10,000.
Most big cities already limit campaign donations, but Pittsburgh doesn't.
The Democratic nominee, Theresa Smith, 49, of Westwood, is ruling out checks of more than $2,500. She raised just $3,170 through last Monday but has since held a fundraiser, the results of which don't have to be reported until March 5.
Her top contributor through last Monday was the Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers Local 9 PAC, at $1,000, followed by the Teamsters Local 626 PAC, at $500.
"I'm more concerned with the people that are handing cash under the table," she said. A top aide to Mr. Deasy's campaigns, she said she hasn't personally seen large cash contributions -- anything above $100 in currency is illegal under state law. "I've heard various stories."
Georgia Blotzer, a 59-year-old Mount Washington Democrat running as an independent, has the best-funded campaign, raising $15,389, the most of any candidate, including $4,000 of her own money.
"I'm not taking any PAC money," she said, though her campaign did get $250 from the Western Pennsylvania Laborers Political Action Fund in December. Her biggest donor, giving $500, is Georgia Berner, of New Castle-based Berner International Corp., which doesn't appear to have city-related contracts.
Another candidate, Brendan Schubert, 25, of Westwood, wants donation caps of $2,300 put on city races, and said he's applying that to his bid. He's another Democrat running as a third-party candidate,
A city zoning administrator, he said campaign finance reform is "the key to getting ethical contracts done with the city [and] good development."
He brought in $9,085 through last Monday, and has since held a fundraiser. His biggest donors, at $500 each, are the city firefighters union's PAC, lawyers William and John Goodrich, and John Patrick Lydon, chief executive officer of the Auberle Home in McKeesport.
Republican nominee Chris Metz, 24, of Sheraden, is running a shoestring campaign on $700, including $500 from Donald Simms, chief executive officer of United Mining Equipment Inc.
He said that PACs shouldn't be allowed to give as much as individuals and that donors associated with businesses that get city contracts should have the lowest contribution limits of all.
Ms. Smith doesn't think campaign finance is most important to most voters. "The people in the community are concerned with blighted properties. They're concerned with crime. They're concerned with streets being paved."
She is president of the Crafton Heights Westwood Ridgemont Community Council and has held jobs focused on parent involvement in the public schools.
She rejects the polarization in some western neighborhoods between homeowners and renters sometimes assumed to be holders of Section 8 housing vouchers.
"We're finding that a large portion of the problem properties are not Section 8 properties," she said. "There are people that live in Section 8 homes that are PTA presidents, that are community organizers."
Mr. Schubert said he'd like to take $45.3 million that Mr. Ravenstahl wants to use to pay off debt and instead "reinvest some of that money into residential and commercial real estate." That would build the tax base and help lift state fiscal oversight.
Ms. Blotzer, a retired special education teacher, said the city should "try to help property owners stay in those properties" that are at risk of going vacant and steer empty buildings into the hands of community groups.
Mr. Metz, who is the political director of the Republican Committee of Allegheny County, said the voters want a watchdog for their tax dollars.
"I'm not afraid of the conflict," he said. "I'm just not a yes man."
Rich Lord can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1542.