Note: This is my testimony to Hartford’s Charter Revision Commission from Wednesday, February 20, 2013. In full disclosure, I am the administrator of the New Haven Democracy Fund, the public campaign finance body for New Haven’s Mayoral Elections.
The purpose of public campaign financing is to reduce both actual and perceived corruption. Campaign finance donations are often seen as pay to play. Indeed, after the scandal leading to the conviction of former Governor John G. Rowland, the Connecticut General Assembly passed a sweeping reform known as the Clean Elections Program.
As part of this legislation, signed into law by Gov. M. Jodi Rell, candidates for state electoral office can participate in publicly-financed campaigns. Publicly financed campaigns serve to reduce the perception and reality of pay-to-play politics and to increase the number of people participating as donors and voters.
Public money in political campaigns amplifies the value of the small dollar donor. According to the Public Campaign, a Washington, D.C. based organization fighting for publicly financed elections, which is run by Connecticut resident Nick Nyhart:
“Being freed from the money chase means [candidates] have more time to spend with constituents, talking about issues that matter to them. When they enter office, they can consider legislation on the merits, without worrying about whether they are pleasing well heeled donors and lobbyists.” (see www.publicampaign.org/fair-facts)
Public Campaign supports the Fair Elections Now Act, an attempt by Congressmen including our own John Larson, to institute public campaign financing in federal elections. Any federal clean elections programs seem threatened by the rightward sway of the United States Supreme Court.
On Tuesday, February 19, the Supreme Court agreed to hear McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, an appeal seeking to overturn the limits on campaign finance donations to federal candidates. Considering the court’s approach in freeing dark money in Citizens United, it looks as if the court will use McCutcheon to tear down more restrictions on money in politics.
Thus, we cannot trust federal institutions to reform our electoral problems. Instead, we must focus on state and local solutions that do not run afoul of current Supreme Court precedent (or if they do, have a viable, arguable basis, because the problem will be likely be challenged in court) to tame the corruption of big money in politics.
Hartford had had serious issues with the reality and perception of pay-to-play; our stark reminder was Tuesday, February 19, when former Mayor Eddie Perez watched his attorneys appeal his corruption convictions to the Connecticut Appellate Court.
As an incumbent in 2007, Mayor Perez raised more than $700,000 for his re-election, with much of that money coming from people who worked with companies that held city contracts. This was part of Perez’s downfall.
In 2011, Hartford did not see a contested run for Mayor. Yet in 2015, it is foreseeable that an entrenched incumbent could raise more than $1 million for re-election in an unconstrained contribution environment.
In the second poorest city in the United States, spending more than a million dollars to run for chief elected office seems an absurd auction and a violation of the public trust. It is also very likely that competitors for seats on the Court of Common Council will raise and spend upwards of $50,000 in their campaigns.
The Charter Revision Commission can step into the fray and help stop this madness by including a public campaign finance program in the Charter Revision. Now is the time to do it, considering that it can be implemented prior to the 2015 election cycle.
While it is arguable that the city should first pass an ordinance, and test a public campaign finance system via ordinance before instituting it into the constitutional charter; we cannot wait for the political actors in the city’s executive and legislative branches to move on the problem.
Elected officials, subject to budgeting pressures and political winds of change, avoid risk-taking, especially risks that lessen advantages of incumbency. Therefore, it seems an ideal opportunity for the Charter Revision Commission to lead the City of Hartford, the state and the nation on this issue.
As part of the Clean Elections Program legislation in Connecticut, the General Assembly allowed three municipalities to start their own campaign finance programs. Only New Haven has done so. Mayor John DeStefano established the Democracy Fund in 2006 to publicly fund mayoral elections.
Public campaign financing programs work because a candidate voluntarily agrees to abide by strict contribution and donation limits and provide transparency for their campaign finances. In exchange for this, a non-partisan government agency will help fund the candidate’s campaign.
Governments can accomplish this goal of public campaign financing through block grants, matching funds or a hybrid of the two.
The Connecticut General Assembly selected the most common – block grants. So when a candidate for the General Assembly collects 300 small dollar donations amounting to $5,000, the State Elections Enforcement Commission writes the candidate a check for $20,000.
The matching grant is best demonstrated by the New York City’s Campaign Finance Board. In City Council elections, where 51 councilors represent 51 districts of about 160,000 people, the CFB provides a 6-to-1 match of up to $175 per contribution.
For example, if a qualifying New York City donor gives a participating candidate $175, the New York City Campaign Finance Board matches that donation six times, and the candidate ends up with $1,050 from one small donation. A $10 donation becomes $70.
About 12 cities nationwide engage in public campaign financing of elections, including Portland, Oregon, Los Angeles, California, Albuquerque, New Mexico, Chapel Hill, North Carolina and Santa Fe, New Mexico. Some of these programs are more than 25 years old. Hartford should join them.
The only hybrid system in the nation is the New Haven Democracy Fund. The Democracy Fund matches 2-to-1 qualifying donations up to $25 and once the election is contested (meaning another candidate has spent or raised $5,500), the Fund provides a $19,000 grant for participating candidates who reach 200 matching donations.
The Charter Revision Commission should examine public campaign financing for city council and mayoral elections. In New Haven, there are 30 aldermen who serve districts of 4,500 people. In Hartford, the nine councilors serve at large, but each represents approximately 13,500 people.
This testimony is intended to be brief, and does not flesh out the particulars of a program. But if I were on the Charter Revision Commission, I would be looking at New York City’s model of 6-to-1 matching donations. This model also demands that non-participating candidates adhere to the same contribution limits and paperwork.
New Haven’s program does not do this, and thus is weaker for it. The Democracy Fund is still working out certain kinks, and against an incumbent, the campaign financing grants may not be big enough.
In austerity budget climates like those we face now, everyone is concerned about how to pay for these programs. I am not certain the extent of the Charter Revision Commission’s authority to tax and spend, but other cities have developed models of dedicated funding streams.
We cannot worry about how to pay for it. Our bigger concern should be with insuring that elections for political office are not auctions, where candidates bow to donors to win elections, and then serve only those interests to win elections.
The Supreme Court has said that money is speech. This creates an inequitable situation where a dollar is worth more than a vote. Does the City of Hartford have a duty to counter this perception that money influences policy? Absolutely. The Charter Revision Commission can help insure fair elections by reducing the amount of time candidates spend fundraising to focus on local issues through the creation of a public campaign finance system.