Michael Oshry spent more than $220K of own money for his Edmonton mayoral campaign

Businessman and former city councillor Michael Oshry spent $223,250 of his own money on his failed mayoral campaign, a campaign disclosure document shows. 

According to the Local Authorities Election Act (LAEA), the self-funding contribution limit is $10,000. 

Oshry, who finished fourth in the mayor’s race, spent more on his campaign — $586,267 — than runner-up Mike Nickel, but not more than winner Amarjeet Sohi, who spent $655,405.

Municipal candidates had to file campaign disclosure and financial statements by March 1.

Oshry: ‘campaign followed the rules’

According to his disclosure statement, Oshry raised $353,050 in campaign funds and contributed $223,250 to his campaign. The document shows a remaining deficit of $9,967.49.

“The campaign followed the rules, accounted for all funds, and our reading of the legislation is that all campaign deficits had to be recorded as a personal donation,” Oshry told CBC News in an emailed statement Wednesday.

An election sign in central Edmonton advertises Michael Oshry’s mayoral campaign. (François Joly/Radio-Canada)

He said everyone has been paid for their services, which was important to him.

Neither Edmonton Elections nor Elections Alberta would comment on the discrepancy or confirm or deny the existence of an investigation.

What happens if you break the rules?

The LAEA states that “a candidate may make a contribution from the candidate’s own funds that does not exceed $10,000 to reduce a deficit shown on the candidate’s disclosure statement.”

“A candidate may help to eliminate a campaign deficit, but only to the limit of $10,000,” said lawyer Guy Giorno, who has a specialty in political law.

Any candidate whose expenses exceed that limit is guilty of an offence and liable to a fine of up to $10,000, the act says.

Penalties for breaking election rules are generally low across Canada, said Duff Conacher, a co-founder of the non-profit Democracy Watch, who is also writing a PhD thesis about political finance.

Some scholars propose tying finance penalties to candidates’ incomes, requiring wealthier people to pay more if they break the rules, he said.

Conacher wants there to be proactive auditing of candidates’ campaign finances before election day and investigations of all violations.

“These are positions of public trust and everyone needs to know that you will lose the chance of winning power if you break the rules trying to win power,” he said.

How much did councillors spend?

Some municipal candidates’ disclosure statements have been filed but are still under review, including those for Ward Dene Coun. Aaron Paquette, former Ward 3 Coun. Jon Dziadyk and mayoral candidate Kim Krushell. 

Former Ward 12 Coun. Moe Banga has yet to file a disclosure. According to the LAEA, candidates who don’t file by the deadline must pay a late fee of $500.

Available public documents, however, reveal mayoral candidates in 2021 spent more than those running in the 2017 election, while successful council candidates spent much less than the previous batch of contenders.

On average, successful city council candidates spent about $38,000 on their 2021 campaigns. Most of that money came from donations of more than $50, disclosure documents show.

Successful public school trustees spent about $8,000 on their campaigns on average. Catholic trustees spent much less, with four candidates not spending any money.

How much does money matter?

Six winning councillors spent more money than their competitors, but four managed to win without doing so.

“You do not need a lot of money,” said Ward tastawiyiniwak Coun. Karen Principe, who spent about $12,200 on her campaign, most of which was her own money.

Between herself, her husband and her mother, Principe’s team knocked on 19,000 doors, visiting every house in the ward, she said.

Principe believes having a short donor list helps maintain independence by showing she represents constituents, not wealthy donors.

Ward Sspomitapi Coun. Jo-Anne Wright spent $12,053 on her campaign — the least of any successful candidate — and received 10 donations over $50. Signs and leaflets were her two biggest expenses, she told CBC News.

Coun. Jo-Anne Wright spent the least on her campaign of any sitting councillor. (Madeleine Cummings/CBC)

Like Principe, she too focused on door-knocking, visiting 10,000 homes in the ward.

She saved money by not having a campaign office and re-used signs from her 2017 council run, placing stickers over the former ward name. 

Wright’s husband led her sign team and volunteers helped distribute leaflets and make phone calls, she said.

“That all helped win the election,” she said.

Harman Singh Kandola, who also ran in Ward Sspomitapi, earned more votes than the incumbent Moe Banga, but fewer than Wright — despite outspending her by more than seven times.

He said his team ran a sophisticated campaign and knocked on at least 10,000 doors, but still came up short — in his view, due to vote-splitting.

“You had six members of minority communities and you had one candidate who was Caucasian, and ultimately, you had a vote split amongst those six minority candidates,” Kandola said.

He added that voters at the doors asked what distinguished him from other racialized candidates and questioned what he meant when he used the words “our community.”

“I [had] to justify to so many people that when I speak about my own community — where I’m born and raised and live and raise my children — that I mean more than just brown people,” he said.

Less money in council races

The disclosure documents show 2021 mayoral candidates attracted a lot more political donations than those running in 2017.

Former mayor Don Iveson’s expenses were about $366,000 during his 2017 election campaign, far more than any of his challengers.

Meanwhile, victorious council candidates in 2017 spent about $65,000 on their campaigns on average — significantly more than the $38,000 on average for 2021 winners.

Edmonton’s newly elected mayor and councillors. Top row, left to right: Amarjeet Sohi, Erin Rutherford, Jo-Anne Wright, Keren Tang. Middle row, left to right: Sarah Hamilton, Andrew Knack, Michael Janz. Bottom row, left to right: Jennifer Rice, Tim Cartmell, Karen Principe, Ashley Salvador, Anne Stevenson, Aaron Paquette. (Photo collage by John Zazula/CBC)

“It’s a good thing to see that the money and spending have been going down and it levels the playing field essentially,” said Bradley Lafortune, executive director of Public Interest Alberta, a non-profit that, in part, focuses on equity in society and institutions.

Corporate and union donations were allowed in the 2017 municipal election, but are no longer permitted. Company owners and union members may now donate as individuals, however.

Lafortune wants limits on campaign spending to make running for office more accessible to more people, he added.

On average, council seat winners spent about $5,700 of their own money on their campaigns.

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