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In council race, money is making a huge impact

When the at-large City Council race ends Tuesday, it will be the most expensive in history, with candidates likely to raise $1 million by the time the campaign is over.

As of the latest reporting date Oct. 15, eight candidates vying for four at-large council seats had already raised $905,000 -- more than the $771,000 in the entire 2001 campaign. The total is expected to grow after the intensive final weeks of the race are reported.

The vast majority of the funds, more than $760,000, went to the top four winners in September's preliminary, up from $533,000 for the top four in 2001.

The funding disparities between the top candidates and those who finish lower have grown to alarming levels, according to the Massachusetts Money and Politics Project, which analyzed campaign finance records. And special interests are playing a larger role than ever.

"The enormous amounts of money being raised and spent in the municipal races make it much more difficult for people with average means to run on the city level, and it increases the access and influence of special-interest groups," said Galen Nelson, director of the Massachusetts Money and Politics Project. "In a city that has recently become a majority-minority city, it makes it difficult for candidates of color, who have trouble raising money and getting citywide support, to win."

The top four candidates have spent nearly $496,000 and are on pace to match or exceed the $528,000 spent by the four winners in 2001. Fund-raising has become increasingly necessary, political observers say, because fewer supporters are willing to volunteer, and candidates are turning to professional consultants to handle the media, organize phone banks, or target specific groups of voters.

The council attempted in 1983 to diminish the need for big fund-raising machines -- and the influence of special-interest money -- by adding district seats and reducing the number of citywide at-large councilors. But the amounts raised in this year's at-large race are so large that many said the impact of the restructuring is fading.

"As one of the people who was an advocate for the current political system, I never would have expected that," City Hall observer and former councilor Larry DiCara said. "The goal was to have money be less important because you would have more people elected from districts. But now it appears money is more important."

Corporate donations are illegal in Massachusetts, but employees of companies typically bundle their contributions to have maximum influence -- a practice that had been common in campaigns for state and federal offices. The method also skirts the legal limit of $500 from each donor.

Council President Michael F. Flaherty and candidate Patricia H. White were the greatest beneficiaries of bundling, according to the Mass. Money and Politics analysis. In a single fund-raiser, Flaherty took in $3,550 from employees at Peabody Construction. He continues to hold a large cushion against the rest of the field, even though he has all but stopped raising money. He has raised more than $238,000 and spent more than $152,000. For the stretch run, he still had $236,500.

White, in her first run for city office, has taken in $147,400, spent $96,500, and had nearly $51,000 in the bank. By mid-October, she had collected more than $20,000 from developers and construction companies, according to the study.

"Certainly their access and influence to City Council members increases," Nelson said. "That can only mean one thing: The debate around rent control and other housing issues in the city of Boston will certainly be skewed in their favor."

Councilor Stephen J. Murphy has done better than White without courting the same donors. Relying especially on labor unions and government employees, Murphy, who is using a professional fund-raiser, has raised more than $175,600. He has spent $122,400 and had $59,154 remaining in his coffers.

Maura Hennigan, the longest-serving city councilor, has never been a prodigious fund-raiser and has raised $44,800. Facing a tough reelection battle primarily against White and her ally, Councilor Felix Arroyo, she had $15,700 left in the bank to get her message out.

Arroyo, on the other hand, has raised $83,700 -- with nearly $22,000 remaining -- and spent heavily on slick mailers in various neighborhoods. He has also received the endorsement of most minority politicians and civic leaders, as well as Flaherty.

Matt O'Malley, who made the final election in his first run for office, has impressed many with his aggressive campaigning and had raised $27,495 by Oct. 15.

The two remaining candidates, former state representative Althea Garrison of Dorchester and Roy Owens, a minister from Roxbury, have raised no money.

Rick Klein of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Corey Dade can be reached at dade@globe.com.

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