In past elections for seats on the Oak Park village board, tens of thousands of dollars got poured into campaign coffers, from everyone including condo developers and the local movie theater owner. But in 2011, the group of candidates backed by the VMA, the long established political party in Oak Park, is having a much harder time raising cash, they admit. However, they won’t say exactly how much is in the bank.

Nearly every election over the past 50 years in Oak Park has been dominated by the Village Manager Association. This year, the political party endorsed three candidates — Ray Johnson, Adam Salzman and Robert Tucker — who are calling themselves “Citizens for Accountable Leadership.”

As recently as 2007, the VMA candidates accumulated more than $60,000, far out-fundraising the competition. But with the struggling economy and a sleepy village board race, the VMA slate has pulled in “considerably less” with about a week to go before the April 5 election, said Lynn Kamenitsa, campaign manager for the three candidates.

“People’s pocketbooks are a little bit squeezed right now, actually a lot squeezed right now,” she said. “The economy is tough and people are watching their spending, and we’re watching our spending as well.”

A recent change in state election law has eased reporting requirements for campaigns. Kamenitsa said the slate doesn’t have to report all of its contributions until a mid-April deadline, after the election. Candidates and campaigns are now required to immediately report only donations of $1,000 or more.

Through today, Citizens for Accountable Leadership has raised $4,400 toward its campaign, according to the Illinois State Board of Elections website. That came in the form of a $3,400 loan from the VMA and a $1,000 contribution from Steven Ginsberg.

Kamenitsa refused to say how much Citizens for Accountable Leadership has raised toward the campaign, but acknowledged that it’s “considerably less” than the $30,000 the VMA raised in the 2009 election.

“I can’t talk to you about that before the election. You can see what’s out there publicly, but we can’t give that kind of information right now,” she said. When asked why, she said, “Because we’re just not going to do it.”

Back in 2007, the VMA slate — which included Ray Johnson, then seeking his second term — raised some $60,000, and $74,000 including in-kind contributions. Donors in that much more contested election included Lake Theatre owner Willis Johnson, major Oak Park property owner Bill Planek and since departed developer Alex Troyanovsky.

Johnson, 47, believes that the low fundraising total is partly because so many Oak Parkers are focused on District 97’s referendum push. A handful of people who helped with the VMA’s campaign last time around have, instead, devoted their attention to lobbying for the tax increase.

“There’s a lot of energy and focus and passion there because it impacts everyone to a very personal level,” he said.

Back in the 2007 election, there were 12 candidates from three different slates competing for four spots on the village board. While this year, there are only five competitors, two who are independent, lesser-known political hopefuls. Johnson believes the decreased competition has also lead to the decreased interest and fundraising.

“I like to think it’s because the majority of people believe we are going in the right direction,” Johnson said of the current village board, which is filled entirely by VMA candidates.

Kamenitsa said, with less money in the bank, they’ve relied more on door-to-door campaigning and social media, and less on advertising and mailers.

Independent candidate Lewis Carmichael, 80, is refusing to take donations for his campaign. The retired dentist spent about $250 of his own money for business cards and printing at Kinko’s, and is mostly relying on his website, LewisCarmichael.com.

The other independent, 46-year-old Lynn Kessen, is also refusing donations, and is sticking to a $1,000 budget from her own pocket to buy buttons and sticky notes to put on doors.

“If I get elected, I just never want anybody to question why I was making a decision,” said Kessen, a government affairs analyst for an engineering firm.

Kessen disagreed that the public is satisfied with the village board’s performance over the past four years, pointing to opposition to the 20-story hotel tower that trustees approved last year.

“It will be a good litmus test for whether that’s true,” she said of next week’s election. “Hopefully I can prove them wrong.”

In the last election, Gary Schwab and the Village Citizens Alliance slate got battered, being out-fundraised and outvoted by a margin of two-to-one. Schwab thinks it might be tough for Kessen or Carmichael to win without any financial backing. Other locals, such as Bernie Abraham, have won spots on the board with shoestring budgets, he said, but they had more name recognition in Oak Park.

“Nothing seems to be getting any traction except for the referendum,” Schwab said.

CONTACT: mstempniak@wjinc.com

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