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Super PACs have become a fact of life in big federal elections like the presidential race. Donors can give unlimited amounts to these political action committees. That's as long as the committees don't work directly with a candidate. Now they're making their way down the ballot, all the way to mayoral races. In Philadelphia, super PACs have spent more than $10 million this year. From member station WHYY, Dave Davies reports.
UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting) People want to know who we are, the Parker-Kenney team, the Parker-Kenney team.
DAVE DAVIES, BYLINE: There was plenty of enthusiasm in Philadelphia's 50th Ward on primary day this spring for Democrat Jim Kenney. He cruised to victory in a six-candidate field. That gives Kenney an overwhelming edge in this highly Democratic city. But most of those cheering for Kenney and voters who saw ads for him on TV didn't realize that most of them were not produced or paid for by his campaign.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: For more than 20 years, he's been one of Philadelphia's most progressive voices. He's Jim Kenney.
DAVIES: That commercial came from a group called Building a Better Pennsylvania. It's one of two independent groups that spent considerably more boosting Kenney's candidacy than his own campaign. In Philadelphia's mayoral primary, candidates raised $5 million themselves. The super PACs relying on big donors spent about twice that.
LYNNE ABRAHAM: I couldn't get my message out. That's it.
DAVIES: Lynne Abraham was the only woman in the field. She entered the race with plenty of name recognition from her 19 years as a district attorney, but she didn't have a super PAC on her side and couldn't match their fundraising. She quickly moved back in the pack and finished third.
ABRAHAM: It puts you at a tremendous competitive disadvantage where people say to you, well, are you running? And you say, well, I'm already announced. They say, yeah, but I haven't seen your commercials. Well, don't have the money; would you like to make a contribution? It's really hard.
DAVIES: The super PACs in the Philly mayor's race weren't national groups funded by ideological donors. They were local players with a particular policy interest or connection to a candidate. And it wasn't exactly easy to get information from them.
DAVIES: Good morning. This is Dave Davies calling again for Wayne Miller. He's not available? I know I've been calling all week, but I just want to make sure he understands I'm doing a story about this political committee he chairs, which is...
That was my fifth call to one committee's chairman, trying to find out who was funding their work. They would eventually reveal their donors - mostly unions - in required finance reports but not until they'd spent weeks pushing their message to voters. The Philadelphia ethics board has since pushed through more frequent reporting requirements, and the board imposed rules that effectively prevent what director Shane Creamer calls nod-and-wink coordination between super PACs and the candidates they back.
SHANE CREAMER: A classic example of nod-and-wink coordination would be where a candidate uploads video of the candidate that was created by the candidates committee to a third-party source like You Tube, and then a supporting PAC would pull down that video, repackage it in the form of a TV ad.
DAVIES: That's a common tactic in congressional races. Philadelphia is one of several major cities to see super PACs step into local politics this year. Mayoral super PACs have also been active in Chicago, Nashville and Washington, D.C. One thing seems clear. Until federal law changes, super PACs in local elections are here to stay. For NPR News, I'm Dave Davies in Philadelphia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.