City Points Way For Clean-Elections Push

Joshua Mamis Photo U.S. Reps. Rosa DeLauro and Maryland’s John Sarbanes were top-billed for a roundtable discussion on “New Approaches to Fighting Big Money in Politics.” But New Haven, and Connecticut, nearly stole the show.

On a federal level, the panel agreed, our democracy is broken. Industry lobbyists write legislation. Candidates understand that if they happen to take certain policy positions, cash—and lots of it—will flow into their coffers. The Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision opened the floodgate of big-money donors influencing the electoral process, and therefore public policy.

Sarbanes (at left in photo) is the author of legislation aimed at countering the impact of Citizens United. He’s crusading across the country to sell his “Government By the People Act,” which would create public financing for federal elections. DeLauro (second from left), a co-signer and New Haven’s U.S representative, is currently on her own crusade, opposing the Obama administration’s quest for fast-track authority for a trade agreement known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).

The two causes are related, she said: Campaign cash is used to gain influence that has resulted in 86 percent of the 600 people at the TPP negotiating table representing corporations or industry associations.

Two other members of the panel, which convened Monday night in Yale’s Linsly Chittenden Hall, made a case that New Haven specifically, and the Nutmeg state generally, are national models for countering the influence of political action committees (PACs) with effective pubic financing of elections. The clean election reforms were sparked by the state’s reputation as “Currupt-icut.” The state got that infamous moniker after John Rowland’s pay-to-play scandal, as well as similar quid pro quo scandals in several cities around the state.

New Haven is the only city in the state to have set up public financing, noted Jared Milfred (at left in photo), the chair of the New Haven Democracy Fund. The Fund matches donations up to $25 for mayoral candidates who agree to spending limits. The Fund, he noted, has been a success: It has provided public financing for seven mayoral campaigns since 2007. It has reduced the need for constant fundraising, and encourages candidates, who are working to raise money through small donations, to communicate with people in their neighborhoods—increasingly so in low-income and minority areas where voters have historically been removed from the electoral process.

In addition, he said, the fund required that donor contributions be recorded digitally to make it easier for citizens to research campaign contributions.

Milfred called campaign finance reform “the most important issue of our time.” Nothing will change, he said, “unless we get the distortive power of money out of politics.”

“Municipal campaign finance reform,” said Milfred, “can spur national change.”

State Rep. Matt Lesser (in photo) of Middletown made a similar case for Connecticut’s Citizens’ Election Program. Connecticut candidates can qualify to access public funding by raising a threshold amount in small-dollar contributions from $5 to $100. For a state Senate race, candidates must raise $15,000. For the House, $5,000.

Lesser, who said that the public funding mechanism helped him win his campaign against an incumbent Republican, said that, “Our system of campaign finance reform has changed everything.”

It is helping to bring new candidates into politics, he said, and therefore, “forces [incumbent] candidates to take races seriously.”

The law, he said, is party-blind, and benefits Republican, Democratic, and third party candidates.

Lesser described how access to public funds helped give lawmakers the support they needed to stand up to the beer distributors’ lobby. His example: the bottle law. When originally passed it allowed liquor stores to keep the “nickels” from un-returned bottles. Year after year, attempts to reclaim these funds on behalf of taxpayers failed. Finally, enough lawmakers were untethered from the need to raise their own campaign cash to pass a bill that captured those nickels for the state.

Sarbanes’ The Government By the People Act would take some of the elements in place in Connecticut and apply the strategy to federal races.

Sarbanes said his bill would multiply the impact of small-dollar donations by matching their contributions of $150 or less to a Congressional candidate who forgoes traditional PAC money. His bill would match some donations at a 6:1 rate, turning a $50 contribution into a $350 contribution. For candidates who agree to take only small-dollar donations, the $50 contribution can become a $500 contribution – matched at a rate of $9 to $1.

The potential for this trigger, he said, is the power of the house party. Twenty guests with $50 donations each suddenly becomes 20 guests contributing $500 each—for a total haul of $10,000. These voters would suddenly have the ear of the candidate, on a par with most lobbyists.

The Maryland congressman’s bill also includes a provision for countering late-campaign big-money attack ads that have proliferated in the wake of the Citizens United decision. Citizen-funded candidates who raise at least $50,000 in additional small-dollar donations within the 60-day “home stretch” of the general election would be eligible for additional resources.

The cost? Sarbanes said that it would “scale up” after 10 years to an average of $500 million per year. He believes that the reform is cost-saving to the taxpayer. He envisions that it will empower lawmakers to reduce corporate welfare and close industry loopholes and tax breaks that cost the federal government big money. “It’s an investment well worth making,” he said.

DeLauro spelled out some of the other costs of the impact of big money in politics in her remarks, not all of which necessarily appear on the budget ledger.

Big money inflates the cost of the drugs we need, she said, as pharmaceutical companies lobby to resist government price controls. It keeps the minimum wage low. It is the reason Congress hasn’t been able to update the Toxic Substances Control Act since it was passed in 1976.

Corporate and trade association lobbying also is fueling the drive to pass fast-track approval for the secret negotiations of the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement, which, she said, will gut food safety regulations and cost Americans jobs.

“Money speaks,” she said, “and it has taken over.”

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posted by: THREEFIFTHS on April 22, 2015  1:30pm

Snake-Oil being sold.Take a look at the panel.The major of them are back by the Plutocrats.Look up how much Rosa DeLauro is worth.

posted by: Carl Goldfield on April 22, 2015  3:51pm

I was very involved in getting permission from the State of Connecticut to permit New Haven to institute public financing for the New Haven Mayor’s race and then getting the New Haven ordinance passed.  (The former was much more difficult than the latter-it took 3 State legislative sessions). That being said, with 30 Wards I don’t support public financing of Alder races.  Apart from the cost, the Wards are small and a motivated Alder candidate shouldn’t need a lot of money. What it takes is organization and the willingness to get out, knock on doors and convince your neighbors.

And before we pat ourselves on the back as a State, let’s remember the gigantic loophole our Democratic legislature created for party donations which was exploited by Mr. Kennedy.  Was he punished? No he was elected.

If a “progressive” such as he is able to rationalize a pure abuse of the election laws (presumably by an egotistical conviction of the overriding benefits to be afforded the electorate by his win) how can I ask the Koch brothers to be held to a higher standard?

posted by: robn on April 22, 2015  4:37pm

The CT Democrat machine has lost the trust of CT voters by exploiting loopholes in the public financing laws and being complicit in the purchase of New Havens BOE by a union coalition. The last thing we should give these people is more tax dollars.

posted by: Noteworthy on April 22, 2015  6:41pm

Reality Check Notes:

1. Corrupticut is still true. One need only look at the bastardization of the “clean elections” process that allowed Ted Kennedy to funnel money to the state party which in turn, dumped $300K into his senate bid. Gov. Malloy completely whored out the elections process by having lobbyists, special interests and corporate bigs dumps hundreds of thousands of dollars into the “federal” account which Demo party officials knew, and Malloy knew, was going to be spent on his election effort.

2. Malloy’s election bamboozle of the federal account is currently under investigation.

3. Locally, a candidate can simply opt out of the “clean elections” process and raise all the money they want from special interests - which is exactly what Harp and her predecessor John DeStefano both did - raising hundreds of thousands of dollars.

4. Public financing helps get little known candidates out the gate, but those in power will always prostitute the process in order to win. If Lee thinks it works so well, he should be championing real reform instead of the watered down, loophole riddled law that laughably is called “clean elections.”

posted by: Christopher Schaefer on April 23, 2015  6:36am

Am I the only one who sees the extraordinary irony of including Rosa DeLauro on a panel discussion of campaign finance reform?  Do a search of “Rosa DeLauro Money Trail”. I don’t begrudge anyone who becomes fabulously wealthy due to hard work, wise investments, etc. However, whenever I personally have asked DeLauro about the ethics of her source of massive wealth, her standard response is “I’m very proud of my husband’s business. Next question.” Note how even at this panel discussion she diverted attention away from the actual topic—campaign finance reform—and conveniently segued into the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement, drug costs, food safety, etc.: basically anything to avoid an embarrassing focus on her own unethical (albeit perfectly legal) use of campaign funds. One also has to wonder why mainstream media has never investigated DeLauro’s wealth-building “technique”.  The only news article I’ve been able to find is a four year-old piece done by the right-wing “Human Events” entitled “DeLauro Campaign Finances Raise Questions”—written by a Canadian reporter. I know we’re all tired of hearing rants about “media bias” but why has the DeLauro Money-Making Machine been given a pass for decades?

posted by: wendy1 on April 23, 2015  3:20pm

You’re right 3/5’s.

Politicians are irrelevant.  I met more folks lately who have given up on voting.

posted by: Thomas Burwell on April 26, 2015  11:41pm

Carl Goldfield, I disagree when you say, “That being said, with 30 Wards I don’t support public financing of Alder races.  Apart from the cost, the Wards are small and a motivated Alder candidate shouldn’t need a lot of money. What it takes is organization and the willingness to get out, knock on doors and convince your neighbors”.

When you are a small and motivated alder candidate knocking on doors you do NOT have a level playing field against more organized, more funded, more lobbied for candidate. I encourge you to research New Havens campaign figures for various alder races. You will find a gap in funding to a point of handicap. Sad to say but yes even at the aldermanic level.

I think public financing for alders would be a great idea. I for one am interested in knowing what the regulations and dollar amounts would look like for an aldermanic candidate opting in for public financing.

posted by: robn on April 27, 2015  7:21am

TB,

But it doesn’t matter either way. Like the Harp/Elicker race, when it was clear that Elicker captured the majority of his donations in town and was keeping up with Harp’s union machine, a phone call was made at the last minute and AFSCME coughed up a huge check (not to mention innumerable boots on the ground).