How much does it cost to be the mayor of Grand Forks?
This year, between $7,300 and $34,000 and counting, according to a combination of Herald interviews and campaign finance documents filed by the four people vying for the city government’s top administrative post. With one exception, a considerable amount, or all, of that money has come from their own pockets.
North Dakota law requires candidates for local office to report donations to their campaigns once in early May, again in the fall, a final time after the end of the year, and if they receive more than $500 in any given 48-hour period. That year-end report, which isn’t due for about eight months, requires them to account for their campaign spending, but all four candidates for Grand Forks mayor either reported their spending anyway on the May report, which covers Jan. 1 through April 30 – or did so when contacted by the Herald earlier this week.
Do those spending figures suggest a barrier to political office in Grand Forks?
Of this year's four candidates, only Robin David said she thinks so.
“It’s absolutely a barrier to having a broader range of voices heard,” she said Thursday. “A middle-class person who wants to take on that kind of leadership role has significant challenges to their time, their effort.”
The other candidates disagree.
“I think your message is the most important part of your campaign,” Mike Brown said. “Not the paraphernalia that surrounds your message.”
And Brandon Bochenski said David’s campaign shows there isn’t a barrier.
“There’s different ways to do it,” he said. “You can certainly raise money, like Robin did, or you can use your own.”
In Grand Forks, the mayor earns approximately $24,000 annually for what is supposed to be part-time work.
Brown, a retired doctor and the incumbent mayor, said he personally has spent about $8,000 on billboard ads during the period covered by the state-mandated report, plus another $26,000 since then on further advertising on TV, radio and with the Herald.
He and Art Bakken, a business owner who’s staging a write-in campaign and has spent $8,000 on a similar advertising blitz through the end of April, have both entirely self-financed their campaigns.
Bochenski, a single-family home developer and former pro hockey player, spent $13,312.60 on advertising and operations, according to a report prepared by his campaign’s treasurer. But unlike Brown and Bakken, Bochenski reported $3,470 worth of donations to his campaign – the $9,842.60 difference came from his own checkbook, he confirmed to the Herald on Thursday. Since that initial report, Bochenski’s campaign has filed three “48-hour” reports that detail more campaign contributions, bringing the total amount he’s reported receiving to $11,470 since Monday, May 18.
The outlier of the four candidates, financially speaking, is David, a former UND administrator who now heads Grand Forks’ “GF Welcomes” program. David reported to the Herald that her campaign spent $7,398.54 during the period covered by the initial finance report and received $15,933.63 -- a fundraising figure that’s easily the most among the four candidates.
David said she hasn’t spent any of her own money campaigning thus far. Similar to Bochenski, her campaign has also filed a supplemental report that outlines a large additional donation, bringing her reported fundraising total through Friday, May 8, to $17,972.36.
It’s difficult to determine if prior Grand Forks mayoral campaigns have spent as much as the 2020 campaigns. That’s because the North Dakota Legislature has only required local candidates to report their campaign expenses since 2018, and, even so, only in that end-of-the-year report and only in broad, undefined categories such as “advertising,” “operations” and “miscellaneous.”
But candidates have been required to outline the contributors to their campaigns for years, and reports submitted in 2016 indicate that mayoral candidates received less outside financial help than they have this year: Brown, who was then running for his fifth consecutive term as mayor, reported $4,750 worth of contributions that year, and challenger Terry Bjerke reported $3,600.
David hasn’t spent any of her own money, but her husband’s aunt and father have donated about $2,200 to her campaign.
Regardless of prior years' spending figures, the money candidates are spending and receiving is still significant: the median income in Grand Forks County between 2014 and 2018 was $51,000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.