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Hartford Politics: Stuck in the Thrall of Tweedism

Publicly financed campaigns in Australia generate a multitude of candidates and reduce some corruption.

Publicly financed campaigns in Australia generate a multitude of candidates, policy platforms and reduce corruption (not eliminate it, but reduce it).

Connecticut is a hero democracy, according to Lawrence Lessig, a Harvard law professor and campaign finance reform advocate.

Lessig spoke to a packed crowd at UConn Law School Friday, April 24, 2015, as the DayPitney visiting scholar.

He explained the state of Connecticut deserves accolades for its efforts to remove the corrosive effects of private money from elections through the Clean Elections Program.

The city hosting his visit, not so much. Lessig didn’t say that. I did. Right now. Until I told him about Hartford’s defeat of a public campaign finance measure for mayoral elections in 2013, Lessig didn’t realize Connecticut  allowed cities to engage in public campaign financing.

Hartford could have been a hero municipality. But like so many opportunities for progressive change, Hartford’s political class and elite leadership structure spikes them.

It would have been nice to see more DayPitney lawyers there, like, say, Court of Common Council president Shawn Wooden, who failed to advocate for clean elections in that charter election in December 2013.

If it’s an innovative policy measure that could help eliminate corruption, don’t expect more than a handful of people in Hartford’s City Hall to support it. Shawn Wooden, Pedro Segarra, Alex Aponte, and Ken Kennedy and Kyle Anderson won’t be among them. Why?

Lessig’s analysis of the American electorate explains the malaise facing Hartford’s coming election.

While the statutes and practice say there are two elections – a general and a primary – Lessig argues a third, unspoken election controls the candidates: the money election.

This problem he labeled Tweedism, after the dubious New York City kingpin Boss Tweed, who famously said I don’t care who does the electing as long as I get to do the nominating.

Tweedism, to Lessig, is a two stage process: in the first stage a narrow subset of people effects a biased filter on what can happen in the second stage, so the general election, the next step, sees the system only respond to the desires of the Tweed puppet-masters.

Among the many examples, Lessig reminded us of the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong in 2014, when scores of students occupied public spaces calling for election reform.

The Hong Kong problem: a 1,200 person nominating committee controls who gets presented to 100 percent of the population for the vote. That, in effect, is a .02 percent filter. Those 1,200 people on the committee are pro-business, pro-Beijing elites.

Compare that system to America’s election, where 55,000 or so people (out of a nation of 387 million) give the maximum of $5,200 every two years to Congressional candidates. Those 55,000 people equal .02 percent of America.

Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy has long decried how he spends between 30 and 70 percent of his time dialing for dollars. Lessig intoned  the privately funded system of American elections is Tweedism, but alas, we have not seen millions of pro-democracy protesters.

Congressional candidates, then, shift their shapes to adjust their policies based on whom they speak to: the rich. This national political regime of dialing for dollars skews American policy making to the interests of the .02 percent.

Here in Hartford, we endure a different type of political shape-shifting: contorting to the will of the 77 members of the Democratic Town Committee, many of whom work for the City itself.

Doing the math, Hartford has about 125,000 people, so the Tweedist filter effect is only .06 percent of Hartford – not a precise analogue to Hong Kong or Congress. But it’s pretty darn close.

The DTC has given us nothing but dysfunction because the people it selects act in the the DTC’s interest. Make no mistake: the DTC has well-meaning people, yet many of those solid, community intentions fall by the wayside in naked power plays.

DTC chair Marc DiBella would disagree with this assessment, but the quality of candidate the DTC is considering putting forward in this election for Court of Common Council, based on preliminary lists I have seen, is hardly Hartford’s best and brightest.

Marc is a nice man, who always says hello, but he controls the spigot on the Tweedist filter in Hartford. We must also ask what kind of a Tweedist effect DiBella’s father, the famous Bill DiBella, has in this situation.

Bill DiBella, for those who care to recall, had to pay a $791,000 fine for aiding and abetting former state treasurer Paul Silvester in steering pension funds to various capital investment firms. DiBella was found guilty after a seven day trial in 2007.

We should all puzzle how Bill DiBella manages, year after year, to remain the chair of the Metropolitan District Commission and its billions of dollars, given his  public record of corruption, bid-rigging and contract steering.

Lessig would likely answer the problem is Tweedism. As long as Marc DiBella is chair, it’s a guarantee the DTC will never endorse a candidate who will challenge Bill DiBella’s position at the MDC, be they candidate for mayor, city council, state rep, state senator or dog catcher.

It’s like when we listen to the news and hear of Saddam Hussein loyalists remaining in the Iraqi government, or back after the fall of the Soviet Union, the proliferation of Communist Party apparatchiks populating the new Russian government.

Even after a revolution, the moneyed, powerful interests still find a way to finger the triggers of civic decision making.

This Mayoral election, if the DTC does endorse (which it probably should not given the split of candidates), I’ll wager DiBella’s candidate – apparently Luke Bronin – wins the endorsement. The prize of the Tweedist filter of the DTC endorsement is the top line in the primary ballot.

The top line pretty much insures the endorsed candidate wins. The last time a non-endorsed candidate won a mayoral election: more than 20 years ago.

And we haven’t even discussed the money filter. A quick look at Pedro Segarra’s campaign finance filings demonstrates the $200,000-plus the incumbent has raised creates the wealth filter. The $1,000 donors are lawyers and developers, many of whom do not live in the City of Hartford.

This explains many of Segarra’s boneheaded policy decisions.

Why should people who live outside of the City have more say in government than us citizens? That’s what Segarra’s government feels like, not the heroic government of the state that responds to the people (say that one without choking on your sandwich).

Thanks to Kevin Brookman for posting Segarra’s campaign finance records online. The City did not do this. Nothing progressive or proactive should be expected from this Tweedist regime.

Without me going to City Hall or Brookman posting Luke Bronin or John Gale’s Form 20s, I don’t know what their records look like. But given Bronin’s $380,000 haul in three months, it’s safe to say the same filter effect will be in action.

Disclosure mandates I say I’m leaning to Bob Killian’s camp, since he is the only candidate who proclaims the City has a fiduciary duty to its people, not the Tweedist filters who finance elections and live outside the City. I have also donated $20 to John Gale’s campaign, because he invited me to a fundraiser.

Lessig maintains we fix the national Tweedist filter on a national scale by implementing public campaign financing. I am not sure that alone fixes the DTC problem locally, but it would be a start. I wait for the mayoral candidate who comes out in favor of public financing for the City.

It’s cheaper than Tweedism.

Thanks for reading and have a good week!



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