From Spotlight Delaware – In governor’s race money pours in from personal accounts of 3 candidates

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By Karl Baker

This story was produced by Spotlight Delaware, a community-powered, collaborative, nonprofit newsroom covering the First State. Learn more at spotlightdelaware.org 

The three-way race to become Delaware’s Democratic candidate for governor is gearing up to be among the most expensive and competitive in recent history. Much of the money is flowing from the candidates’ personal bank accounts. 

In December, Collin O’Mara, Delaware’s former chief environmental regulator, loaned his fledgling campaign $750,000 – a massive amount for a political campaign in little Delaware, even surpassing any of former Gov. Jack Markell’s individual contributions to his famously self-funded campaigns of the 2000s. 

Collin O'Mara Delaware
Collin O’Mara | PHOTO COURTESY OF THE O’MARA CAMPAIGN

O’Mara’s contribution allowed him to gain ground on other candidates who had been fundraising for months – or years. But, a day after he made the loan, his competitor New Castle County Executive Matt Meyer added another $200,000 loan into his own gubernatorial campaign account, bringing the total he has lent it to roughly $580,000.

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In separate interviews, O’Mara and Meyer each said they transferred hundreds of thousands of dollars of their own money into their campaigns to demonstrate to potential donors that theirs was the serious candidacy in the race to become Delaware’s highest elected official. 

“I’m asking them to make a bet on me,” Meyer said. “If I don’t bet on myself, how can I expect them to?”

The two candidates also each stressed that their contributions were loans, which they hope their campaigns will pay back with money raised elsewhere.

“We wanted to signal that we’d be competitive from the beginning as a way also to instill confidence,” O’Mara said.

Meyer’s loans over the past two years largely followed what Lt. Gov. Bethany Hall-Long – Delaware’s third leading gubernatorial candidate – says was more than $300,000 in past campaign expenses that she personally funded between 2016 and 2022. 

Hall-Long revealed those contributions, which she called a mixture of gifts and loans, in September after several campaign staff members resigned amid suspicions of accounting irregularities. 

New Castle County Executive Matt Meyer Delaware
New Castle County Executive Matt Meyer | PHOTO COURTESY OF NCC

In an emailed statement, Hall-Long also noted that she contributed a few thousand dollars more to her campaign in 2023. They were “expenditures out of her personal account, given as a loan, that were then forgiven,” she said. 

“We’re honored by the financial support we earned last year and are proud to have done it thanks to our strong grassroots base. Our campaign raised over half a million dollars in 2023,” she said in the statement.

During the final days of 2023, Hall-Long transferred $655,000 from her previous lieutenant governor’s campaign fund to her current gubernatorial committee, leaving her with a year-end war chest of $687,000, according to campaign finance reports filed with the Delaware Department of Elections.

O’Mara held more than $870,000 in his campaign committee at the year’s end. 

Meyer’s campaign dwarfed them both with $1.7 million in the bank at the end of 2023.

The amounts, which reflect the expected competitiveness of the three-way race, far surpass past fundraising totals in gubernatorial races at the same stage of the campaign, except those from the 2008 contest – the last time Democrats held a competitive primary for governor. 

Markell won that race against John Carney and ultimately served two terms. 

Nevertheless, if the donations to the three candidates continue to grow as the election season heats up this year, it should be enough for the Democrats to flood Delaware with leaflets, phone campaigns, and even more.

Delaware Lt. Gov. Bethany Hall-Long
Lt. Gov. Bethany Hall-Long | PHOTO COURTESY OF LT GOV OFFICE

“I think we’ll have enough cash on hand to be on TV in Philly,” O’Mara said.  

The amounts raised also highlight the growing distance between the political prospects for Democrats and Republicans seeking statewide offices in Delaware. 

Jerrold A. Price, the sole Republican to file as a candidate for governor this election cycle, reported last year that he contributed $5,000 to his campaign, which ended the year with less than $3,000.

In an interview in early April, Price said he has since added more of his own money to his campaign during the early months of the year, placing his total contributions at about $25,000. 

Asked if he thinks he could eventually match the fundraising totals of his Democratic rivals, Price said “not a chance.” 

He also said that GOP party leaders won’t fund his campaign until after the September primary, adding that there could be two additional Republicans who enter the gubernatorial race in the coming months.

“But if people believe in me, that’s all I need,” he said. “I’m not going to beg anybody for money.”  

Just from living frugally?  

While the Democratic candidates’ contributions to their own campaigns differ, they appear to highlight what the political transparency organization OpenSecrets.org calls a trend toward more self funding in politics, nationally.

The Democrats’ contributions also reflect a wealth that exceeds that of the average Delawarean – the state’s median income from 2018-2022 was $79,325. That wealth sparks the question of how politicians who like to highlight the modest parts of their past careers – in government, education or health care – can afford to transfer hundreds of thousands of dollars of their own money to their campaigns. 

When asked that question, Meyer and O’Mara each said in separate interviews that they did so through years of saving and living frugally. 

O’Mara said he drives a Pruis with more than 300,000 miles. 

Meyer said he relies mostly on WiFi for his smartphone, rather than purchase a monthly data plan that would allot him with a set amount of usable internet.   

Hall Long did not answer questions about her wealth for this story. 

Yet, while Meyer and O’Mara point to financial discipline, each candidate also acknowledged that they have had periods during the careers of high earnings. 

Prior to becoming New Castle County executive, Meyer worked as a corporate attorney. Since 2013, he also has owned an e-commerce business, called Vitumob, that ships products from the United States to East Africa. 

Meyer said Vitumob’s profits are typically in the “five-figure range … and every now and then, it’s a little more than that.”

For the past decade, O’Mara has served as CEO of the National Wildlife Federation, a prominent nonprofit company that spends about $100 million a year on environmental conservation initiatives. 

In recent years, his total annual compensation has hovered around $400,000. 

While Hall Long didn’t discuss details of her wealth, she has reported income in past years from the University of Delaware as a professor of nursing, in addition to her salary as lieutenant governor. Today, a UD professor makes a minimum of $113,130, according to the university salary scale.

In 2018, her husband also teamed with her former deputy in government to start a business renting nine homes in a low-income neighborhood outside of Wilmington.

In all, the details of the candidate’s past work indicate where they may have the most expertise, but also the most potential conflicts. To learn more of those details and about the outside donors to the candidates, read Part 2 of this series to be published next week.

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