New Haven Mayor John DeStefano Jr.’s re-election campaign committee raised far less money in the opening months of 2003 than it did two years ago, according to finance reports filed Thursday.

As of April 3, DeStefano’s campaign had raised $16,600, compared with $216,775 at the end of the first quarter of 2001. With no declared opponent in the September Democratic primary or the November general election, DeStefano kicked off his campaign this year much later than in 2001, when the five-term mayor faced a fierce challenge from state Sen. Martin Looney.

DeStefano, who said he expected to face an opponent, said the fundraising figures were a result of strategy during the early months of the campaign.

“We’ve not been out campaigning and fundraising aggressively at this point,” DeStefano said.

Although DeStefano’s committee officially filed with the City Clerk’s office on Feb. 19, it collected all 52 of its reported donations on April 2 — the day the campaign officially kicked off with a fund-raising dinner at Anthony’s Ocean Side Restaurant. The mayor’s campaign began its fundraising efforts more than a year and a half before the 2001 general election during the last election cycle.

As in 2001, a large percentage of DeStefano’s contributions came from outside New Haven. While 55 of 56 donors were Connecticut residents, only 20 contributors — 36 percent — live in New Haven.

DeStefano’s campaign manager, Shonu Gandhi ’03, said she viewed fundraisers as a means to engage voters in a discussion with the mayor.

“Basically, this campaign isn’t going to be about money,” Gandhi said. “We really want this campaign to be about ideas.”

She said the high number of out-of-town donors was likely due to citizens who have a stake in New Haven government.

“At the same time that people who live in New Haven are obviously the heart of the city, there are many people who are invested in New Haven who don’t live here,” said Gandhi, who is also a staff columnist for the Yale Daily News.

While DeStefano continues to raise money for his re-election campaign, he is also supporting an effort in Hartford that would allow public financing of municipal elections in New Haven. The bill, which would permit the Board of Aldermen to create a financing system, was introduced earlier this year by seven New Haven legislators.

If the bill passes, the city would provide funding to candidates meeting a designated level of support. The funds would be collected in part through a voluntary contribution on property tax forms.

DeStefano said that if the bill passes, others in Connecticut may begin advocating public financing in other municipal or even state elections. The bill, which passed a committee vote last month, would not have any impact on this year’s mayoral or aldermanic elections.

“I support it because I had to raise $800,000 last election cycle,” DeStefano said. “For a two year cycle, for a mayor’s race, that seems like a lot of money.”

Looney, who serves as majority leader in the Senate and co-sponsored the bill, said he has supported efforts for public financing of municipal elections for over 20 years. But he said he was not certain whether the city could collect the necessary funds through voluntary donations.

“It’s very hard to predict at this point what sort of local support or interest there is,” Looney said.

DeStefano said it was likely the city would have to use money out of its general fund to help create a public financing system.

State Sen. Andrew Roraback ’83, one of the four Republicans to vote against the bill in committee, said he was skeptical whether New Haven’s money would be best spent on financing campaigns.

“I think many of us are mindful of the city of New Haven’s struggle to meet the needs of — the underserved in the community, to shelter the homeless, to feed the hungry, and to just take care of basic human needs,” Roraback said. “So the notion that public resources that could be devoted to those purposes would instead be spent on balloons and bumper stickers was unnerving.”