By ADAM SMITH & KURT WALTERS
The July 10 Washington Blade column by Mark Lee deriding efforts to bring small donor public financing to city elections, “No doling out dollars to D.C. politicos,” is big on rhetoric but short on facts.
The author says such a system would “limit public participation,” but the hundreds of candidates in cities and states across the country elected under similar systems—and the thousands of new small donors brought into the system—would probably disagree.
Simply put, a small donor public financing program would empower regular people in our political process and free politicians from the chase for big campaign checks that too often pits the needs of donors against those of their constituents.
Here are the facts.
Council members David Grosso and Kenyan McDuffie, tired of city politicians mired in corruption, have offered a common sense plan, called “Fair Elections.” This proposal would begin to restore faith in the city’s politicians by allowing candidates for council member and mayor to run competitive campaigns for office by relying on a mix of small dollar donations and limited public funds.
Under this voluntary system, candidates have to collect a set number of small dollar donations to show broad public support for their campaigns. Once qualified, every small dollar donation they receive is matched on a 4-1 basis. A $25 donation from your neighbor becomes $125. Far from limiting wealthy developers and business owners from participating in the political process, it simply lifts the voices of those unable to write big checks to get the attention of politicians.
With Fair Elections, candidates can better focus on the needs of their constituents, instead of the desires of their top donors. Qualified community leaders without access to wealth or insider connections could run and win elected office.
From Maine to New York City, Connecticut to Arizona, candidates on city councils or in state houses have been able to run and win office using these systems.
Former Maine Sen. Deborah Simpson is a perfect example. She was a single mom, working as a waitress, when she decided to run for the Maine House of Representatives. She didn’t have wealthy friends or her own money to fund a campaign, but she had lots of people willing to give her $5 to qualify for public funds. She ran, won, and was able to provide a much-needed voice for children and families in the state house.
These systems not only give a broader set of candidates a fair shot, but they also broaden the base of everyday people participating in the political process. A 2008 report our organization conducted on the Arizona “Clean Elections” system found that publicly financed candidates have a set of donors that is more ethnically, economically, and geographically diverse than privately financed opponents.
At a roundtable held last Thursday on the Fair Elections bill, Connecticut State Rep. Gary Holder-Winfield said that his state’s public financing system prompts even longtime incumbents to go out and spend more time in neighborhoods they would otherwise overlook since a $5 or $10 contribution becomes significant under Fair Elections. Long conversations on front porches took the place of meeting at exclusive fundraisers with wealthy donors who are able to cut large checks.
A small donor matching system like that proposed by Grosso and McDuffie would ensure that you don’t need to write a $500 check to have your voice heard in the D.C. Council. After years of scandal and corruption in the Wilson Building, it’s time for a new approach.
Adam Smith is the communications director and Kurt Walters is the research and policy analyst at Public Campaign, a national nonprofit organization focused on common sense changes to our campaign finance laws. Both are residents of Washington, D.C.