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Washington – Even though some of them don’t have challengers, Connecticut House members collectively spent nearly $3 million last year on everything from office supplies to gourmet chocolates, flowers, glitzy fundraisers and expensive meals.

Federal election laws allow member of Congress to spend their campaign funds on anything that is not considered personal use.

That’s why a Connecticut Mirror analysis of the spending habits of Connecticut’s House delegation last year using Federal Election Commission filings showed money was spent on traditional things like campaign consultants and staffer salaries and things that are less traditional.

The campaign of Rep. John Larson, D-1st District, paid 158 restaurant and catering bills last year. Larson spent more than $54,000 in campaign funds on food, including meals at tony restaurants like Cavey’s in Manchester and the Montmartre Restaurant in Washington, D.C.

Ellen Hart, a spokeswoman for the Larson campaign, said Federal Election Commission prohibitions on raising campaign money from a congressional office prompted Larson to raise funds – something candidates often do by calling potential donors on the phone — during meals at restaurants.

“With day-to-day work done frequently around meals, full disclosure is a priority,” Hart said.

Larson’s campaign also spent $670 on flowers. Hart said the flowers were sent to funeral services and constituents recovering from illnesses. Larson does not have a strong challenger.

Rep. Rosa DeLauro’s campaign spent more than 10 times as much as Larson did on flowers, about $7,500.

Her campaign did not respond to questions about the purchases.

DeLauro’s campaign also spent more than $38,000 on food, some of it to feed donors at fundraisers, like the one she held at the Mohegan Sun casino that cost about $9,000.

“It is normal to have food catered at fundraising events, and these expenses are consistent with our past financial reports,” said DeLauro campaign manager James Tickey.

The DeLauro campaign also spent more than $700 on balloons and more than $1,000 on gourmet chocolates from Kron Chocolatier. DeLauro does not have a challenger.

“There are no limits on what a federal candidate can use their campaign funds for, other than the prohibition that money is not used for personal purposes,” said Campaign Legal Center policy director Meredith McGehee. “It doesn’t have to be bona-fide campaign expenses.”

McGehee said one of the ways lawmakers both spend money and raise money is to hold events “in very nice venues.”

“Campaign money is often used by safe incumbents to reward their political supporters and support their political ambitions,” McGehee said.

Perks for a ‘lousy job’

One way to support a political ambition is to give generously to party organizations.

DeLauro ‘s campaign gave $313,000 to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which helps Democrats in tough races. Larson gave the DCCC $110,000; Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, donated $13,500; Rep. Jim Himes, D-5th District, who is the DCCC’s finance chair, gave $90,000.

Rep. Elizabeth Esty, D-5th District, considered the most vulnerable member of the Connecticut delegation in this election year, will probably receive more help from the DCCC than she gives the party.

“Safe, even unchallenged, incumbents raise and spend money to try to ward off challenges in future elections, to contribute large sums to their party as a way of advancing within party and committee leadership, to make themselves more visible in the political and policy communities, and to enjoy a few perks in what is a pretty lousy job,” said Thomas Mann, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

Campaign spending often helps boost local businesses and local economies.

Courtney’s campaign, for instance, spent $5,800 on food from Waterford caterer Ivy’s Simply Homemade, $7,800 for a fundraiser at the Mohegan Sun and more than $12,000 to two printing companies in West Hartford.

But the Connecticut’s Mirror analysis shows that Courtney, and the House delegation as a whole, spend more money from their campaigns out-of-state, especially in Washington. D.C., than in Connecticut.

Courtney press secretary Liz Donovan said the lawmaker “has worked to raise funds for this cycle from his grass-roots Connecticut supporters, and is committed to keeping campaign spending as low as possible.”

“His focus is on representing his constituents from eastern Connecticut in Washington,” she said.

Campaign spending skews out-of-state because lawmakers hold many fundraisers in Washington, D.C., and hire expensive consultants and fundraisers in the nation’s Capital and other places.

Donations to the DCCC, which is on Capitol Hill, also helps tilt campaign fundraising.

Himes campaign spokeswoman Elizabeth Kerr said there’s another reason campaigns spend more in places like Washington, D.C.

Kerr said the FEC says a supporter can hold a fundraiser in his or her home without declaring an “in kind” donation if the cost of food and other expenses do not exceed $1,000.

“So most Connecticut-based events do not show any related expenses on the FEC filing,” Kerr said. “For example, if a couple hosts an event in their home considered to be a fundraiser for both the primary and general election cycles, they could spend up to $4,000 without needing to declare it an in-kind contribution.”

It’s not only Connecticut’s lawmakers who’ve spent a lot of money on their campaigns last year. Challengers spent, too.

Mark Greenberg, for instance, a Republican businessman who is running against Esty, spent nearly $192,000 on  fundraising and public relations consultants, polling and other services to set up his campaign. He was also the first candidate for Congress to run ads, spending more than $25,000 on advertising last year.

Another Republican running for Esty’s seat, Sal Stephen Ross Lilienthal, spent $5,900 to print a book he’s written.

And Dan Debicella, a Republican challenging Himes, paid more than $13,000 to a fundraising company based in New Jersey.

Many times challengers must leave their jobs to campaign, while incumbents continue to draw their congressional salaries, which is $174,000 this year for most House and Senate members. So the FEC gives challengers more leeway to use their campaign funds for personal use, including rent and groceries.

Campaign fundraising and spending will dramatically increase this year, especially in the summer and fall before November’s elections. The next filings at the FEC for federal candidates, covering the first three months of this year, are due April 15.

Ana has written about politics and policy in Washington, D.C.. for Gannett, Thompson Reuters and UPI. She was a special correspondent for the Miami Herald, and a regular contributor to The New York TImes, Advertising Age and several other publications. She has also worked in broadcast journalism, for CNN and several local NPR stations. She is a graduate of the University of Maryland School of Journalism.

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