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Election Day

Debby McCormick, left, watches the results with her daughter, Abby Gleason, at the Democrats' election night party at the Hibernians in Auburn.

The Citizen file

It is not uncommon to see a candidate who ran an unsuccessful campaign for elective office form a political action committee. Bernie Sanders launched a PAC after his bid for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination. Hillary Clinton did the same after losing the presidential race to Donald Trump. 

After her state Senate campaign in 2016, Leslie Danks Burke decided to form a PAC. But this isn't your traditional shadowy group that dumps large sums of money into races all over the country. The goal of Danks Burke's group is much different. 

Danks Burke launched the Trailblazers PAC to focus on local government elections in New York and Pennsylvania. In 2017, the organization endorsed 24 candidates, including two in Auburn — incumbent city councilors Terry Cuddy and Debby McCormick.

Trailblazers PAC is nonpartisan. Danks Burke, a Democrat, said the group supported candidates who ran on five party lines in November. 

To earn the PAC's support, candidates must meet certain benchmarks. They must abide by stricter campaign finance rules than the law requires. For example, candidates must fully disclose all of their campaign receipts and expenditures. New York state law doesn't require 100 percent disclosure of contributions or expenses. 

"There is a striking amount of information about the money in your campaign that you don't have to disclose as a candidate," Danks Burke said in a phone interview. "We ask our candidates to disclose everything." 

Candidates that receive the PAC's endorsement must also raise a minimum amount of money from their districts. That total varies based on the district, but the goal is to encourage candidates to raise money from voters in their community. 

That fundraising mechanism figures into how much the PAC donates to the endorsed candidate. Trailblazers will match in-district contributions up to $50 from each voter. A candidate can receive at least $1,000 depending on how much money they raise from voters in their districts. 

McCormick, a Democrat who successfully ran for a second term on the Auburn City Council, said her benchmark was 100 donors from the city. The supporters could donate any amount — it could be $5 or $50, she said — but she needed to get those donations in order to secure the PAC's support. 

"I really had a hard time with it because I hate asking for money," McCormick admitted. 

But she did it. And Trailblazers PAC donated $1,000 to her campaign, according to state campaign finance records. 

Danks Burke, of Ithaca, was motivated to launch the PAC after her own experience as a candidate. When she challenged state Sen. Tom O'Mara for the 58th Senate District seat in 2016, she knew it would be an uphill battle. Republicans held a strong enrollment advantage in the district. Democrats comprised 32 percent of the total voters in the 58th. 

While Danks Burke didn't win, she received 45 percent of the vote. After examining the results, she found it was "pretty unusual" in 2016 to get 13 points above the base voter registration for Democrats in a race against an incumbent. 

When she narrowed down the factors that contributed to her better-than-expected performance, she came to one conclusion: It was how her campaign raised money that made the difference. 

"A vast majority of the donations to my campaign came from inside the district, whether they were small donations or large donations," she said. "That's very different from how New York state politics is usually done." 

For Danks Burke's state Senate race, the contribution limit was $11,000. That's more than four times higher than the maximum contribution ($2,700) for congressional candidates. 

Records show Danks Burke raised more than $664,000 in the 2016 election cycle. She raised more than O'Mara, who received most of his money from outside the district. 

Danks Burke referred to her fundraising approach as "front porch politics," a slogan that she believes exemplifies the work of Trailblazers PAC. 

"We decided to go ahead and keep going and we immediately turned all the energy and resources from my campaign into this PAC that is now working across two states," she said. "To invest in candidates for local offices who are also interested in clean government and who are also going to fund-raise from their voters." 

For now, the PAC is focused on local races. And Danks Burke thinks their formula is working. 

Voter turnout was higher in districts where Trailblazers PAC endorsed candidates, Danks Burke said. She attributed this to the need for candidates to seek contributions from donors in their districts. 

"By employing 'front porch politics' and by fundraising locally getting local voters, those candidates got their communities engaged in local politics and more people voted," she said. 

Online producer Robert Harding can be reached at (315) 282-2220 or robert.harding@lee.net. Follow him on Twitter @robertharding.

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