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A Political Challenge: Running a Campaign with Self-Imposed Financing Limits

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Rep. John Sarbanes, a Democrat of Maryland, displayed an uncharacteristic humility for a member of Congress, especially one who espouses a game-changing, revolutionary campaign finance idea: self-imposed matching donation regimes.

When a Congressman like Sarbanes succeeds with it, the success issues a clarion call to other politicians running for local, state and national campaigns that balancing small and large dollar donors is the way of the future. It paves a high ethical road and it could excite voters.

Rep. Sarbanes joined Rep. Rosa DeLauro, Connecticut state Rep. Matt Lesser (D-Middletown), Evan Preston of ConnPIRG and Jared Milfred of Yale’s Democracy United and the New Haven Democracy Fund in a panel discussion about public campaign finance reform at Yale Monday, April 20, 2015.

And Sarbanes waited until the end of the two hour talk to tell of his campaign finance revolt.

Sadly, only about 25 people heard of his talk, possibly because former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean spoke across campus. It could be, too, that people – even Yalies – are done with politics (putting us deeper on the slippery slope of inverted totalitarianism).

Rep. Sarbanes acknowledged that America 2014 experienced its lowest turnout of voters nationally since 1942. “People make a rational judgment that it doesn’t matter if they vote,” he said, because money controls everything, and people don’t have money.

We need to restore that trust, and public campaign financing is one way to do that, he said.

At the same time, though, one incisive woman in the crowd noted talk of campaign finance reform is so inside-baseball as to be insidious, people’s eyes glaze over like they’ve joined the borg.

To combat this, smart politicians like Lesser, DeLauro and Sarbanes said you have to meet people where they are at.

“You have to connect the dots,” Sarbanes said. “Find the issue that is important” to the person “and then lead them from there.”

For example, when talking to a mother who wants her child shielded from toxic toys, discuss how the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act has not been amended in 40 years because big money donors buy Congressmen. This prevents Congress from protecting people.

“A logjam keeps ordinary people out of the political process,” DeLauro added.

For two hours, Sarbanes and company discussed this poisonous political landscape in the United States and potential antidotes. Sarbanes’ main idea, the Government by the People Act, succeeds the Fair Elections Now Act, a public campaign financing act for Congress written by our own John Larson.

The Government by the People Act provides a pragmatic solution to our “money is speech” woes, yet it is about as likely to pass as free kittens for everyone. With stars in his eyes, Sarbanes claimed we could buy back our government for a public investment of $500 million, or what it costs to run the City of Hartford annually.

His proposal, which has more than 150 sponsors, would 1) provide a $25 tax credit to Americans to give to congressional candidates; 2) match donations under $150 on a 6-to-1 basis and 3) trigger matching funds if a Super-PAC attacks a participating candidate with a money dump.

The matching funds regime has proven successful in New York City and New Haven. Yet Rep. Sarbannes most intriguing idea is his own practice, which he humbly waited until the end of the evening to reveal.

In 2014, Sarbanes engaged in a self-imposed version of Congressional public campaign financing. His walking the walk deserves praise.

Rep. Sarbannes was almost shy in describing how he set up 100 precincts in his Congressional District where he wanted to raise $1,000 in small donations. If he met that threshhold, he said he arranged with high-roller donors to essentially match those small donations.

On Election Day, he had 93 out of 100 precincts with donations, and spent the rest of his day cold-calling constituents in those seven zones looking for donations. Some voters could not believe an actual Congressman called them.

Obviously, you think, Rep. Sarbanes must live in a safe district for him to do this. Of course. He did not necessarily need the $1.6 million a Congressman normally needs to run.

Rep. Sarbanes serves an urban district drawn for Democrats. His smallest margin of victory in five elections was 41,000 votes, or 19.1 percentage points, in 2014. Rep. Sarbanes enjoys a John Larson/Rosa DeLauro style district that he can probably keep as long as he needs.

He brings with him an Ivy League pedigree befitting a Senator’s son – Princeton and then Harvard Law (where he chaired the Harvard Law Democrats).

But let’s give credit – immense, heaping amounts like towers of whipped cream on a five-scoop vanilla, chocolate and strawberry sundae – where credit is due. Rep. Sarbanes uses his privilege in a way I never considered a Congressman might do. How you campaign is how you govern.

Am I naïve? This column probably counts as fanboying – but I was astonished to hear of a Congressman doing something like this. It restored a little hope for me, that a person of power and means realizes the depth of the problem requires action and sacrifice on his part.

The only thing close I can think of is when New Haven Mayoral candidate Justin Elicker voluntarily limited his fundraising in the 2013 general election to conform to the Democracy Fund’s limit of $370.00 maximum donations.

Elicker still raised enough to be competitive. It can be done, and small dollar donations empower citizens, as Rep. Sarbanes said.

Is this a new trend in political campaigns? Are we seeing leadership in action by candidates voluntarily, ethically, aspiring to more than what the law requires, in order to change the law?

I’m not so foolish to think Barack Obama’s appeal to small dollar donors in 2008 led him to governing as a populist. He opted out of presidential public campaign financing, despite having $427 million of his total $750 million come from come donors who gave less than $1,000.00.

Rep. Sarbanes predicted the presidential candidates in 2016 will pay lip service to small donors, but these campaigns will not empower small dollar donors. And, he pointed out that the rhetoric of billionaires owning the country comes from both sides of the aisle.

Republican Senator Ted Cruz of Texas rails against the rich buying elections, but Cruz co-opts the left’s language to propose solutions of less government regulations, not public campaign financing.

If we don’t get there first, Rep. Sarbanes warned our democracy is at risk.

 

 

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