Connie Pillich chuckles when asked about her popularity after she dropped out of the governor’s race a year ago with several hundred thousand dollars still in her campaign account.
“Everyone called me, yes. It was lovely,” said Pillich, a Democrat and former Cincinnati-area lawmaker who raised more than $1 million during a run for governor that ended before the primary. At the end of 2018 she still had $541,000 left in her campaign account.
Pillich instantly became a popular breed of politician — one with plenty of campaign money but no obvious campaign on which to spend it. There is never any shortage of active candidates hoping you will shower some of that unused money on them.
While Pillich has the most, she’s hardly alone among former state elected officials and candidates in Ohio who are not known to be seeking any elected office but are sitting on much-desired campaign money. Of those who did not run a race in 2018, the amount totals more than $2.1 million.
"If someone has a future intention to run for office, that’s a valuable asset that they have money to start with,” Ohio Democratic Chairman David Pepper said.
“If they’re not running or don’t plan to run, it puts them in position to support candidates. They can create their own network of people who they’ve helped win.”
Pillich donated more than $130,000 to campaigns and political committees in 2018. But Pillich, now the executive director of the Washington D.C.-based National Association of Women Judges, did not want to empty her account.
“I decided I shouldn’t make any decisions right away. I didn’t know what I was going to do,” she said, noting that a year ago she put $510,000 of her campaign money into a certificate of deposit, where it is earning interest for 18 months.
The money will become available around October, “just in time for all the mayors to ask me for money,” Pillich said. “I won’t decide what to do with it until late September, because I don’t need to.”
Pillich, who ran a close race for state treasurer in 2014, said there also is a good chance that she holds onto a portion of the money in case she wants to make another attempt at public office.
“You just don’t know what opportunities come up in the future or where there’s a need for you.”
There are no limits on the amount a former candidate can keep or for how long, according to the secretary of state’s office. Former candidates just have to file annual reports updating campaign activity.
Jason Mauk, a veteran Republican legislative campaign consultant, said some politicians never want to fully close the door on a future run, particularly with legislative term limits creating a fluid political scene.
“I’m sure these folks don’t like sitting on a large war chest because I guarantee they are getting asked for help every day by candidates who need immediate resources,” he said. “It’s somewhat of an ATM where people line up to beg for cash.”
Former candidates who want to help others need to figure out a way to filter requests for money, Mauk said. “If you’re just giving to everyone who asks, you’re out of cash. That can be challenging.”
Despite not appearing on a ballot since 2010 — and not actually facing a contested election since 1998 — retired Ohio Supreme Court Justice Paul E. Pfeiffer still has nearly $116,000 in his campaign account.
Pfeiffer said his donations came from people in both political parties, which wouldn't surprise anyone familiar with his rulings.
"It didn't seem to me to be fair to hand it off to the Republican Party," he said. He also said he hasn't been asked by other campaigns to donate. "I don't think anyone noticed it."
Pfeiffer spent about $8,900 last year on his official portrait that will hang in the Thomas J. Moyer Ohio Judicial Center. He expects to send the rest to charity this year.
"My mind has changed a couple of times on where that's going," he said, joking that he could use it to buy a billboard across from the court building "with my smiling face looking down at the court saying, 'don't screw things up.'"
John Patrick Carney of Columbus, a former lawmaker who was last on the ballot in 2014 as the Democratic nominee for auditor, has been slowly spending down what was once $35,000 in leftover funds via relatively modest donations, most $500 or less, to a variety of Franklin County, legislative and statewide Democrats.
“From the minute I left office people started asking me for campaign contributions, and I realized quickly I wasn’t going to have the personal resources to help all these folks,” Carney said.
When he departed the legislature after 2014, Carney thought he might try a return to politics in the near future. These days, that’s not in his plans.
“If you were going to run again, it would be easy to come up with a strategic plan of what you’re going to use the resources for,” he said. But for him, “it’s more, this is a good candidate, and I’m willing to support them.”
That often includes, he said, trying to get other donors around Columbus to also help the candidate.
“I do still feel a sense of responsibility to get government to work,” he said.
Reach Jim Siegel at email@example.com.