Thanks to national PAC, City Council candidate has an early — and big — fundraising lead

Pious Ali (BDN file photo by Troy R. Bennett)

Pious Ali (BDN file photo by Troy R. Bennett)

Through a fundraising campaign that has drawn heavily on donors from around the country and began months before nomination papers were even available, City Council candidate Pious Ali is positioned to dramatically outspend his political opponents.

In an early, national push that’s unusual for a Portland City Council race, Ali’s campaign brought in $15,463 between February and July, according to finance reports filed with the city — more than $12,000 of which came from donations to political action committee ActBlue, which does online fundraising for Democrats across the country.

If elected, Ali, a school board member, would be the first African-born American Muslim to sit on City Council. And his early fundraising is also unprecedented in recent city elections.

In the last six council races, only two candidates raised campaign funds before nominations opened on July 1, a review of past finance reports shows. And in those cases, only a few hundred dollars was raised.

Much larger sums are generally raised by mayoral candidates. But most Council candidates don’t raise nearly as much money over their entire campaigns as Ali did before July. Councilor Spencer Thibodeau, whose 2015 campaign was among the best-funded in recent years, raised roughly $16,000 — and he began raising funds in July.

Through ActBlue, Ali has received hundreds of donations. Most are for small dollar amounts, but some are for a few hundred dollars. And while many donations to the City Council candidate come from the Portland area, many others come from distant locales, such as Waxahachie, Texas; Missoula, Montana; and Fairbanks, Alaska. The largest donation through ActBlue, $500, came from producer Sean Ferrer of Los Angeles, California.  

“I am proud that in addition to the incredible support I received locally, I also received contributions from people who read about the protests I helped organize when Donald Trump arrived in Maine,” he told BDN Portland.

Ali has continued soliciting donations since July 1. He suggested that bringing in money through a national PAC ensures his political independence.

“By raising small donations from thousands of regular people, I can remain independent from the wealthy interests who otherwise fund political campaigns in Maine,” he said.

But his opponents have not taken in big bucks from monied donors, according to the most recent filings.

Before July, Councilor Jon Hinck, who is defending his seat, transferred $600 from his accidentally aborted state Senate campaign and rolled over funds remaining from his successful 2013 council race for a total sum of $3,639. Libertarian candidate Matthew Coffey raised no money in his bid for the at-large council seat during that period.

Finance reports for the period ending Oct. 25 will be made public later this month.

Hinck expressed some concern with Ali seeking funds beyond the Portland constituency. “I do not want to see more and more money poured into local political campaigns,” he said.

Ali has gotten a hand in his fundraising from Democratic strategist Steven Biel, his campaign treasurer — who also writes a column and blog for the BDN — and Democratic state Rep. Diane Russell, who maintains an email list of more than 140,000 Democratic donors.

In emails asking people to donate through ActBlue, Russell and Biel contrast their candidate with the top of the Republican ticket, rather than the Democrat and Libertarian candidates he is running against.

“When Donald Trump brought his message of hate to Portland, Pious Ali led a huge, peaceful protest,” wrote Biel in a July fundraising email. “But there’s no Clean Elections program for city council races, so to win this campaign he’ll need people who support him to chip in whatever you can.” (Biel also w

Campaigning against the top of the opposing ticket is a common political strategy, and has been especially common in this election cycle given the historic dislike of both Hillary Clinton and Trump.

Update: This post been updated to clarify that Steven Biel writes a column for the BDN that appears every other week. His co-author is Republican strategist Lance Dutson.